Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the auspicious 1966 debut feature from director Mike Nichols, based on the much-lauded Pulitzer-winning play by Edward Albee and starring the superstar husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Filmed during a fiercely guarded, top-secret nocturnal shoot, it was an eagerly awaited production which became an instant classic upon its release, and the intensity of its subject matter- particularly its then-shocking language- dealt a death blow to the antiquated Hollywood “decency” standards that dated back to the Hays Code of the thirties, leading instead- along with Antonioni’s Blowup– to the development of the MPAA rating system still utilized in the U.S. today.  In essence a powerhouse four-character showcase for tour-de-force acting, it depicts a single night of alcohol-soaked socializing between an older and a younger couple which becomes a vicious, no-holds-barred battle over the pent-up secrets, frustration, shame, and resentments that plague both marriages.  It garnered several major acting awards, including a second Oscar for Taylor, whose reputation as an actress was considerably bolstered by her remarkable, career-changing performance.

Faithfully adapted from Albee’s play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the story focuses on George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the small New England college at which he teaches.  As they are returning home at 2 AM from a faculty mixer thrown by Martha’s father, George is startled to learn she has invited a new, younger professor and his mousy wife to join them for nightcaps; though he resigns himself to their visit, he admonishes Martha against broaching any taboo subjects in conversation- particularly the impending homecoming of the pair’s teenaged son from boarding school.  When the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrive, Martha belligerently defies her husband’s stricture, goading him into an ugly game of one-upmanship in which they both exploit every possible weakness to humiliate and hurt each other, even using their hapless guests as pawns in a dysfunctional war of wits that- it becomes clear- has escalated throughout their long marriage.  As the night progresses, their own secrets are laid bare, as well as a few of Nick and Honey’s, revealing the depth of their misery, the lengths to which they have retreated into fantasy, the extent of their verbal and emotional abuse of each other, and- perhaps most surprisingly- the intensity of the love that still endures beneath all the anger, lies, and recriminations.  By the time the sun begins to rise, both of the weary couples have undergone a purging of pretense and illusion that will leave them irrevocably changed- at least, presumably, until the next drunken faculty party.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, its frank and explicit dialogue, coupled with its overt sexual implications and it’s harrowing emotional intensity, led many audiences and critics to believe it was an unfilmable play.  Though it was hailed as a masterpiece, and won both the Tony and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, such was the controversy surrounding its content that though it was chosen by the Pulitzer judges as the winner of the prize for drama, the advisory board for the awards refused to present it, instead choosing to withhold that years’ prize in the category.   Nevertheless, Warner Brothers studio pursued the rights from playwright Albee, and despite protests and warnings from the Catholic Advisory Board and the MPAA, went ahead with plans to produce a film version that preserved the majority of the play in its original, undiluted form.  In the end, a few minor concessions were made (“Screw you” was changed to “God damn you,” at least in the American edit) and the script was abridged slightly for length, but, for the most part, the film version was released with its profanity and sexual content intact- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a major hit.

Although the publicity over its controversial content no doubt played a role in its box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has sustained its iconic status because it was never meant to be just a sensationalistic shock piece; the brilliance of Albee’s play crackles through every frame, with his dialogue virtually intact and his over-arcing vision maintained with an emphatic zeal for faithfulness.  Director Nichols, though already known as a wunderkind for his stage work, was making his film debut here; nevertheless he was given an unprecedented amount of freedom and control over the project, and his determination to translate the cathartic experience of the original work resulted in a film which brings the full, terrible power of the play to life.  Underneath the bombastic psychological warfare of its action, the saga of George and Martha’s walpurgisnacht is about the line between truth and illusion- more specifically, the dangers of living a life based on comforting lies and fantasy instead of frankly facing an unpleasant reality.  In mid-century America, it was a theme that hit very close to home; a generation after WWII, the cracks were beginning to show in the idyllic façade of the “American Dream,” and the growing discontent and disillusionment with its hollow ideals, which had long been voiced by the counterculture and its underground artists, had begun to find its way into the mainstream.  Virginia Woolf, with its portrait of a couple trapped in their nightmare of elaborate fictions and suppressed truth, provided a perfect catalyst for a nation afraid to face its own reality; and though its characters and setting are not overtly subversive, it is nevertheless a film which heralded the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in American cinema.  It’s telling that Nichols’ next movie, The Graduate, would be Hollywood’s first bona fide “youth culture” film to express criticism of the social status quo; Virginia Woolf is unmistakably cut from the same radical cloth.

As apt as this film was in capturing the zeitgeist of its era, the significance and power of its themes are undiminished by the passage of time; Albee’s magnificent play retains its relevance today, and this remarkable transcription of it seems as fresh and vital as if it were brand new.  Though its then-shocking profanity and its sexual frankness are now milder than much of our prime-time TV fare, the emotional intensity behind them makes for a fierceness that still leaves us reeling; it is not merely the saltier dialogue of Virginia Woolf that packs a punch, but the totality of its language- Albee’s dazzling symphony of words elicits responses on every level from the esoteric and intellectual to the visceral and primal, evoking laughter, horror, sorrow, fear, and every other conceivable reaction, in rapid succession and sometimes simultaneously.  By the end of this grueling evening of “fun and games” we are as stunned and exhausted as the film’s four characters, and like them, we are left facing the cold, unfriendly dawn in a world without illusions.  Of course, it’s not all dire depression and angst; Albee’s absurdist sensibilities are evident throughout, ensuring the continual interjection of ironic, dry, and dark humor, not to mention the considerable intelligence and wit he bestows upon his antagonistic protagonists.  Part of the great power of Virginia Woolf comes from its ability to elicit our laughter even as it is pummeling us with its existential themes and its social commentary.  Like the greatest of tragedies, it’s a play (and a film) that is full of out-and-out comedy, providing a much-needed release of tension and underscoring the ridiculousness of the human situation at the center of the drama.

Needless to say, the linguistic alchemy of Albee’s script would never work without the ability of a superb cast to bring it to life.  When Nichols chose Hollywood’s hottest power couple for the demanding roles of George and Martha, there was considerable skepticism over whether they would be up to the challenge.  Burton, of course, was well-established as a consummate actor, with copious legitimate training and a host of theatrical successes under his belt in addition to his film experience; his bride, however, was a different story.  Taylor had been a major star for two decades, and had previously proven herself as a superb actress (having already won an Oscar for her work in Butterfield 8, though many felt it was a sympathy prize); but she was primarily known for her remarkable beauty rather than her acting chops, and the role of Martha- a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic harridan whose looks were meant to be faded, at best- was thought by most of the cognoscenti to be beyond her grasp.  Undeterred by preconceived doubts, the actress committed herself whole-heartedly to the part; she gained 30 lbs. in order to present the necessary voluptuous figure, and sank her teeth into Martha’s ugliness- both physical and spiritual- in order to do justice to the character.  Her embrace of these attributes does not result in a stereotyped, surface portrayal, however; her Martha is a monster, yes, but she is also every bit a woman- vulnerable, warm, loving, spiteful, frightened, jovial, capricious, calculating, and fully realized.  Taylor’s performance here is the crowning achievement of her career; far from being merely a star turn, it is an example of an actress claiming a role and making it so much her own that it is impossible to imagine another star playing it.  It probably goes without saying that her ferocity is matched at every step by her on- and off-screen husband; Burton, also giving a career-defining performance, gives us an unforgettable portrait of George, a character that has been described as an “angel with a devil’s tongue.”  Breathtakingly intelligent, unmistakably virile despite his crushing mantle of failure and disappointment, and compassionate behind the hostile irony of his icy mask, he takes us along on every step of George’s difficult journey, helping us to understand and to sympathize with a man who could easily come off as an impotent, disaffected snob, and making it clear that his task, like that of his sainted namesake, is to slay a dragon.  Together, Burton and Taylor become a force of nature, making George and Martha appear both as titanic archetypes of marital conflict and painfully real, fragile human beings, and convincingly conveying the familiarity and intimacy of a couple who have been through so much together they seem to think as one despite their embattled dynamic.

Though their roles are less showy, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, respectively, are equally superb; as representatives of the younger generation, they enter the scene wearing the freshness and confidence of a new wave, seeming to embody the perfect picture of up-and-coming success that stands in stark contrast to the appalling discord of their hosts’ dilapidated lives.  It doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off, however; confronted with the harsh reality of their probable future reflected back at them in the grotesque form of their elders, their practiced poise begins to disintegrate, and their true natures begin to show through.  Segal’s Nick, hiding his own fears of inadequacy behind a smug golden-boy demeanor, lashes out with defensive hostility; while Dennis, a ball of barely-concealed insecurity as Honey, rapidly descends into a drunken spiral of infantile banality.  They provide the perfect foils for Burton and Taylor, helping to reveal the repeating pattern of self-deception at the core of the drama by giving us an example of a couple at the beginning of the cycle.  Dennis, like Taylor, won an Oscar, and both the men were deservedly nominated, as well, making this one of only three films ever to have gained Academy Award nominations for its entire credited cast (the others being Sleuth– the 1972 version, of course- and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry).

There are so many reasons to love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Haskell Wexler’s magnificently stark black-and-white cinematography, which captures beauty and blemishes in equally loving detail; Alex North’s haunting and evocative chamber-music score; the completely authentic setting which moves you part and parcel into George and Martha’s cluttered, musty world of booze and bric-a-brac, revealing them both as members of the intelligentsia and as the world’s worst housekeepers; and of course, overseeing it all, the sure and steady direction of Mike Nichols, who appropriately drives the piece like a master conductor presiding over a fine piece of music, finding new ways to position and move his camera, alternating between long, slow takes and short, bursting flurries, building the tension unbearably and giving the impression of heart-stopping action even though most of the film consists only of four people talking.  It earned him a place as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, and deservedly so.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those all-too-rare instances when Hollywood has managed to transfer a brilliant stage play to the screen more-or-less intact and done it full justice; though producer Ernest Lehman takes screenplay credit, his work mostly consisted of editing Albee’s original down to a shorter running time and making a few minor adjustments to compensate for the marginally-reduced ages of its lead characters- virtually every word is Albee’s, and apart from moving a few scenes outdoors and taking the characters on an excursion to an all-night roadhouse for one key sequence, the setting remains the same, as well.  Ultimately, of course, the play is one of those masterworks, like Hamlet, which can probably never be given a definitive treatment; it continues to be mounted in theaters around the world and performed brilliantly by actors who bring their own unique individual interpretations to its iconic characters.  Even so, this important and influential film remains the version which, in the collective imagination of our pop culture, is identified as the ultimate representation of the piece.  Though other actresses may give us a deeper Martha, or other directors may find a more visionary approach to the material, this group of artists have left their indelible mark on Albee’s play, and if you only see one version of it in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one.  If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, as soon as possible; apart from the fact that it is one of the most important pieces of dramatic literature written in the last hundred years, it is also still one of the most searing, surprising and thought-provoking dramas you are likely to see, a far cry from most of the sterile, whitewashed, politically correct fodder that passes for adult entertainment today.


Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, and the great French director’s first- and only- English-language film.  Set in a non-specified (but not-too-distant) future society, where firemen no longer put out fires but start them- in order to burn books, which have been outlawed- it tells the story of one such officer, Montag, whose curiosity leads him to start reading in secret, resulting in his gradual dissociation from wife, job, and culture.  Though it was misunderstood by the critics and the public upon release, meeting with lukewarm reaction and largely being dismissed as an interesting failure, it has gained in reputation and respect over the years and is now regarded as a minor classic- and certainly as a seminal influence on the development of the sci-fi genre.

The choice of Bradbury’s story as source material for Truffaut was an odd one, considering the director’s previous work.  As one of the founders of the French New Wave movement, he had won much critical and scholarly renown with genre-defying films that broke from traditional ideas of cinematic structure and conventional storytelling, tackling social themes in a peripheral way but focusing more intently on the dynamics of human relationships.  His decision to helm a science fiction story- not only a specific genre but one which he had specifically stated was uninteresting to him, before he read Bradbury’s novel- was surprising in itself, to say nothing of it being a film that required adherence to a specifically structured plot and dealt directly with social and political issues.  Odd choice or not, he felt strongly enough about it to spend several years acquiring financing.  In addition, this would be his first film in English- a language he himself did not speak well- and his first in color.  Clearly, there were a lot of expectations awaiting Fahrenheit 451 when it finally arrived onscreen in November of 1966.

Despite its seeming opposition to Truffaut’s usual milieu, the scenario contains numerous elements, such as self-destructive obsession and the dehumanizing effects of authority, which echo some of the director’s recurring themes.  It’s no surprise, then, that his treatment of Bradbury’s novel brings these features to the forefront; he drives the plot   mainly through his portrayal of the cold and robotic firemen and the protagonist’s slow unraveling through his growing passion for the books he is supposed to destroy.  In addition, the two worlds between which Montag is torn are represented by a woman from each one (both played, in fact, by the same actress, Julie Christie), suggesting the triangular relationships which often figure prominently in Truffaut’s films.  It’s also not surprising that many of the original’s overtly sci-fi trappings have been removed in this version; the technology in use here mostly consists of familiar, contemporary stuff revamped with a futuristic design- indeed, many of the everyday devices shown in the film look specifically antique.  When we do see elements that indicate a more advanced technological world, such as the anti-gravity packs used by the airborne squad hunting Montag near the end, they seem jarringly out-of-place.

It is this seeming gap between artist and material that likely created much of the critical dissatisfaction that met with Fahrenheit 451 at the time.  Truffaut’s sensibilities as a filmmaker were geared toward capturing the immediate, reflected in a style that seemed- indeed, often was- improvised on the spot, designed to bring attention to the ineffable perfection of the moment that was happening right now.  For him to tackle a story of the future, then, created a conflict between his personal style and the needs of the material, and there were many viewers who felt that the director failed to reconcile these differences.  This, however, seems to fall under the category of judging a film for what it isn’t, rather than for what it is, which, as I believe I have pointed out before, might be missing the point.  After all, Truffaut’s success was built upon his notion that film should not be bound by expectations and convention, so it seems fitting that his contribution to science fiction cinema should be a film that is markedly different in tone and form to the accepted standards previously set for the genre.  The world he depicts is not so much a distant, future community as it is an exaggerated representation of our own- an inherent conceit (indeed, the entire point) of the whole sub-genre of dystopian fiction, and one which Truffaut emphasizes through his visualization of the novel.  Though we are given a few stylized nods to forward-thinking design- the elevated train which provides public transport, the oddly boat-like fire truck- the majority of the setting looks very much like the then-present day surroundings familiar to contemporary audiences.  Most of the buildings have the elegant, mid-century-modern look that was so popular at the time (and indeed, remains so today), as do the clothes and the décor; contrasted with that self-consciously chic style are the obviously old-fashioned homes and trappings of the counter-cultural characters, whose refusal to embrace the modern trend could arguably be seen as a dead giveaway to their subversive tendencies.  The primary means with which Truffaut emphasizes the difference in this social setting to that of our own is by his exaggeration, sometimes satirical and sometimes horrifying, of the more alarming similarities; the unending banalities that mark every interaction (even between husband and wife), the desire for popularity and personal advancement which seems to be the only real concern for most of the inhabitants, and the intrusive presence of the wall-screens through which the unspecified powers-that-be both control and placate the masses.  The latter is particularly prominent, and- along with the telling opening credits, which are read by voice-over rather than seen in printed form, over a montage of TV antennas- underlines the dominant premise of both the book and the film- not the censorship of literature and free thinking by a draconian government, but the erosion of knowledge and wisdom through the superficiality of a popular culture dictated by an ever-shrinking attention span and an ever-growing desire to shut out the unpleasant realities of life.  It is public mandate that has created the disturbing environment of Fahrenheit 451, not the forced domination of a powerful overlord; the citizens of the future are reaping the fruits of their own intellectual and emotional laziness.

Though re-evaluation has led to a much greater appreciation of the film than was present in its initial critical assessment, there are still a few flaws that cannot be completely ignored.  Truffaut was disappointed in the dialogue, which he felt was stilted and pedantic; though he himself had written the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard, his own lack of proficiency in English limited his ability to create the kind of witty, stimulating exchanges he wished to include- though from a more objective standpoint the marked lack of character in the language of the film creates a strong impression of the puppet-like artificiality of the people that inhabit it.  More unfortunate, really, is the performance of Oskar Werner as Montag; having previously worked with Truffaut in Jules and Jim, the Austrian actor was a last-minute replacement in the role (when Terence Stamp dropped out over fears he would be upstaged by the aforementioned double-casting of Julie Christie), and had substantial disagreement with the director over the way the character should be played.  Truffaut wanted Montag’s humanity to be apparent, Werner felt that he should be stoic and mechanical; the resulting conflict brought an end to the friendship the two men had previously enjoyed, and Werner’s dissatisfaction and refusal to co-operate even led to deliberate sabotage- for example, cutting his hair before filming the final scenes in order to create continuity errors.  His final performance is, as he wanted, detached and largely unemotional- when his passions begin to emerge as a result of his forbidden interests, they seem to surface more as arrogant anger than as deeper awareness- and as a result, it is hard to care about him as more than a vehicle for audience perspective on the story.  As for Ms. Christie, although her twin performances were derided by some critics at the time as being different only in her hairstyle, her work here is highly effective; the similarities between the two women she plays, Montag’s outsider friend and his vapid wife, only serve to enhance the differences that result from their respective interests in the substantial and the trivial.

Truffaut’s vision of Bradbury’s work is realized by a superbly distinctive construction of its physical environment.  The production design by Syd Cain incorporates the contrast between then-contemporary ideas of futuristic styling and a taste for the comfort of familiarity presumably held by the unimaginative residents of this future, unnamed city.  Likewise, Tony Walton’s costume design opposes the gay and cheery hues and smart styles of everyday life against the ominous black fascism of the firemen’s uniforms and the earthy traditional feel of the clothing worn by the “book people.”  The vibrant cinematography, by Nicholas Roeg (whose later work as a director in his own right would sometimes suggest influences from this film), captures it all in a dazzling color palette that reflects the height of mid-sixties fashion.  As for the soundtrack, Bernard Herrmann- the master composer responsible for some of the iconic scores heard in films by Alfred Hitchcock, who was Truffaut’s favorite director- provides a haunting musical accompaniment in his own unmistakable vein, creating an influence, as he always did, that contributes immeasurably to the final overall effect of the movie.

Ultimately, though Fahrenheit 451 has become an acknowledged milestone in the direction of science fiction on screen, and it is now viewed as a little gem of its era, it does fall short in comparison to other works by its auteur director.  Nevertheless, even a weak film by François Truffaut is a work of art, with much to offer and much to appreciate.  It is something of a curiosity in his canon, an out-of-character project undertaken in an alien environment- his limited English made filming in London an isolated and unpleasant experience for him.  It’s worth noting that, despite substantial changes made to his original plot, author Bradbury publicly stated many times that he was pleased with the film, and even that some of the changes (specifically the choice to allow Clarisse, the intellectual schoolteacher who sparks Montag’s curiosity about the books he burns, to survive to the end of the story) were pleasant improvements.  In the final analysis, perhaps, what makes Truffaut’s adaptation work is the thing which drew him to the story in the first place: the director was a lover of books and literature, a fact which is evident in the way he portrays them onscreen.  The weathered and dog-eared volumes seen throughout the film evoke substance and endurance, and the lingering detail in which he depicts their burning emphasizes not so much their destruction as their beauty and their eternal appeal; and the climactic scene in which the exiled literati walk around reciting their memorized books, surrounded by a delicately beautiful snowfall, packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch- despite the cold inaccessibility of Werner’s performance as our would-be hero- resulting from this worshipful, loving appreciation of the printed word.  It is a worthy message Truffaut presents here, and one which seems even more urgent as our modern society- in which crucial information is provided in easily digestible factoids by thousands of broadcasted feeds, and bookstores are increasingly difficult to find- grows more and more to resemble the one portrayed here.  That he was successful in translating that message to the screen is made powerfully apparent by the fact that, after watching Fahrenheit 451, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to go and read a book.


Blowup (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Blowup, the 1966 feature by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni; an existential mystery set against the backdrop of “Swinging London’s” hip fashion-and-art scene. Concerning a successful young photographer who begins to suspect he has inadvertently captured images of someone being murdered in a park, the film is really an exploration of alienation and desensitization in a culture obsessed with image and surface, as well as a meditation on the deceptive nature of perception and the uncertain boundary between illusion and reality. Setting up his theme from the very first scene, in which a truckload of exuberant mimes careens into a London plaza, Antonioni proceeds to perpetrate a cinematic sleight-of-hand by luring our focus onto the ostensible subject- a callous youth, played by unlikely leading man David Hemmings, and the intrigue into which he stumbles- while using the surrounding environment to convey the real purpose of the movie. As surely as the significance of his leading character’s photos lies in the grainy, uncertain corners of their background, the real mystery of Antonioni’s film reveals itself through examination of the peripheral details of its central plot.

The action of Blowup takes place in a world full of vapid fashion models and disaffected posers, communicating in brief, distracted ambiguities and seemingly trying to appear as disinterested as possible at all times. It’s a place dominated by a game in which style is substance, and the master of this game is the photographer, Thomas. As a creator of image, he is at the center of the “in” crowd, and he flaunts the power granted him by his status; surly, entitled, smugly insolent, he treats everyone as an object or as a means to an end, striding confidently through his day and seeking relief for his terminal ennui from momentary whims- whether buying a propeller from an antique shop, having a naked romp with a pair of underage would-be models, or clamoring for a scrap of a rocker’s smashed guitar at a concert- and then becoming disenchanted as soon as he achieves his fleeting gratification. He is a reflection of the culture of desire and acquisition that surrounds him, completely disconnected from others and encased in a self-absorbed bubble of over-saturated perception; and when reality asserts itself in the form of his unwitting involvement in the enigmatic experience at the park, he is completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the situation, failing to control it with his usual tactics and unable or unwilling to communicate it to any of the emotionally distant friends or vaguely hostile strangers he encounters.

It would be easy to slide into a complex morass of analysis in discussing Blowup. It is a deceptively simple film that opens up into an unending progression of dovetailed themes and implications upon even the most superficial examination. Suffice to say that in his portrayal of this ultra-specific time and place, Antonioni captures timeless issues that affect the society of popular culture and commerce no matter what the details of their outer trappings; and in Thomas’ obsessive quest to determine the truth about what he has seen, enlarging his photos until they become as abstract as a Rorschach ink blot, he illustrates the impossibility of objective certainty and suggests that the difference between truth and illusion exists only within our highly suggestible perceptions. Ultimately, all that can definitively be said about Blowup is that it is about a man who, for a short time, at least, pays attention to something.

More to the purpose, here, is a discussion of the artistry involved in bringing all these heady concepts to the screen. Director Antonioni, already renowned for his work in Italian cinema with films like L’Avventura and La notte, enlisted the help of noted playwright Edward Bond in writing the dialogue for this, his first film in English. The resultant wordplay is a brilliant reflection of the themes explored within the screenplay (which Antonioni co-wrote with Tonino Guerra); the characters speak in terse banalities, expressing half-truths and absurdities which stand in contrast to their actions and fail to convey their true intentions- almost everything they say represents a pose, an image they wish to present, and when they must try to convey something more direct or meaningful, more often than not they collapse into an inarticulate and incomplete breakdown of communication. Yet every exchange reinforces the film’s central ideas, from the first line (one of the mimes telling a bystander, “Give me your money- do it!”) to the inscrutable response of top model Verushka when asked if she is supposed to be in Paris (“I am in Paris”). The actors contributions serve as varied brushstrokes on Antonioni’s canvas, creating the necessary blend of textures which completes the picture. Vanessa Redgrave is the mysterious woman whose secret dalliance in the park may or may not have more sinister implications; tall, bird-like, and awkwardly elegant, she superbly conveys a desperation which continually threatens to crack the mandatory veneer of cool disinterest, and gives us a character whose determination and intelligence are plainly evident (though Thomas, her circumstantial antagonist, can only see the vulnerability of her surface) and she suggests a connection to the machinations of a larger world that exists outside the insulated niche in which the film is set- one in which things actually matter. In smaller but no less important roles are Sarah Miles and John Castle, as Thomas’ married friends; standing in for the masses whose interests are captured by those who put on the show, she shows us (with minimal dialogue) the timidity and guilty fascination of someone drawn to the shallow flash represented by Thomas over the weightier substance of her painter husband; and he embodies an obtuse, intellectual aloofness that makes him simultaneously attractive and repellant. The aforementioned Verushka makes an unforgettable impression (as herself) in the iconic scene in which she is photographed by Thomas, writhing on the floor as he straddles her in a highly sexualized encounter which underlines the replacement of actual experience with the artificiality of image. As Thomas, our photographer “hero,” the previously unknown Hemmings became a major star and a symbol of the mid-sixties “mod” lifestyle; his performance, while necessarily limited in range by the scope of his character, is perfect for its purpose within Antonioni’s vision. Though Thomas is arrogant, unpleasant and shallow, Hemmings somehow manages to make him likeable in spite of these qualities, showing us the giddy and rambunctious child beneath his ultra-cool mask in the moments when he is alone, and allowing us to be comfortable when we are forced by Antonioni’s focus to identify with him.

The star of Blowup, though, is the cinematic auteur behind the camera. The film is almost certainly Antonioni’s masterpiece, a vibrant, stimulating work of art that delivers brilliantly both on the surface and on a deeper intellectual level; the entire film leaves the impression of a stunning visual experience, yet though it is filled with indelible images created by the director’s masterful eye for composition (and captured by cinematographer Carlo di Palma), the grand picture we are left with is a synthesis of all we have seen- an intangible and non-existent zephyr. Much of the film’s powerful cumulative effect comes from Antonioni’s use of contrasts- between speeds, colors, textures, people- and his knack for portraying mundane, everyday occurrences in a manner and context that makes them seem hallucinatory and surreal. His use of sound is also important; in particular, the haunting sound of the wind in the trees during the all-important park sequences suggests the vastness and the irresistible force of the ultimate reality which surrounds all the meaningless illusion with which his film’s denizens are preoccupied. His musical choices play a big part, too: the jazzy score by Herbie Hancock captures the hurky-jerky energy of the fast-paced culture in which he has immersed us, and an underlying zeitgeist is evoked by the raw and angrily frustrated sound of The Yardbirds as they play for a seemingly unimpressed crowd of club-goers in their now-famous cameo scene.

Watching Blowup today, it’s easy to see why it has been lauded as an influential classic and been the subject of so much homage and emulation. It captures a perfect snapshot of the fleeting era in which it is set, yet at the same time presents us with a timeless metaphor for our existence in a world of never-ending sensory stimulation. Though the technological methods depicted as central to the story are dated in today’s digital age- in which high-resolution photographic manipulation is instantly available in the palm of everyone’s hand- the basic theme of seeking validation for our perceptual experience is not. Furthermore, it is impossible not to observe the parallels between the pop-obsessed society depicted in the film and that which exists today: in his personification of the mod dilettante at the center of Blowup, Hemmings could just as easily be portraying (if you’ll pardon the expression) the archetypal hipster douche-bag of our contemporary world; and the crowd that surrounds him, the clubs and parties he goes to, and the interests he pursues could all be found on any Saturday-night excursion into the hip-and-happening world of our current youth culture. It’s a movie that became, no doubt with intentional irony, the “next big thing” perpetually sought by the crowd it both portrayed and appealed to; thanks to the far-reaching vision of its director, it was more than that, and it has deservedly become a cornerstone not only of cinema, but in the collective consciousness of our modern world.