AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: ART ON FILM

An American in Paris title card 1   An American in Paris was made in 1951 at the very peak of the Hollywood studio system and the pinnacle of Gene Kelly’s artistic career. It was the perfect blend of art and technique in classic American movie-making. MGM had among its employees all the veteran craftspeople and artists that could produce such a film. And as with many great movies, the back-story is as fascinating as the movie itself. In 1950 as the first plans were being made for the film, MGM, and indeed the entire Hollywood film industry, was in  transition. Television was siphoning off viewers and a court-imposed consent decree required studios to sell off their movie theaters. Cost-cutting was now the mantra, and MGM’s expensive musicals were not viewed favorably by its new production head Dore Schary nor by the corporate offices at Loew’s in New York. The old lion Louis B. Mayer, still in charge of studio operations, supported musicals and the planned An American in Parisbut it took a lot of pleading and persuasive pitches to gain the approval of Schary, and then even more to Loew’s corporate head Nick Schenck and his board. And still the threat of budget cuts loomed over the entire production.

This post is part of Silver Scenes’ MGM Bologathon. My post on An American in Paris was previously published in 2012 as part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon. An American in Paris title card 2

The famed Arthur Freed was the producer of An American in Paris,and he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and Gene Kelly to star and choreograph the film.  Minnelli and Kelly worked very well together and respected each other’s artistic talents. One of the big challenges for the film was the proposed 17 minute-long, wordless ballet and dance sequence  (called the “ballet” in the film’s production).  At the outset, I should say that the ballet sequence was heavily influenced by The Red ShoesPowell and Pressberger’s marvelous film with its own 15 minute-long ballet scene. And it was not just that The Red Shoes’  filmed ballet scenes influenced the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but also that both film’s ballet sequence has as its purpose the visual depiction of the principal dancer’s interior conflicts and subjective emotions. To his credit, Vincente Minnelli’s  An American in Paris used this influence to produce a complex and deeply artistic film sequence of his own. And Gene Kelly brought to life the character that was an American in Paris – through his acting, choreography, and his unique dancing skills.
Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, in a very early scene, shows his unhappiness with
his own image or in his ability to produce a self-portrait, which he will soon to deface

The decision by Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute long dance sequence was bold and risky. Regardless of the success of The Red Shoes, nothing of that scope had been done in an American film. Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner. An American In Paris 6

Other than Gene Kelly, the question of who should be cast for An American in Paris was not apparent. While MGM had several great female dancers, Kelly was convinced that a fresh faced and a native Frenchwoman should be cast as Lise Bouvier. And for that role he had seen a 19 year old French ballerina named Leslie Caron that he wanted for the part. This too was a risky move – a major role for a young woman who had never acted. In continuing with the relatively unknown  cast members, Georges Guetary, a French Music Hall singer, was cast as Henri Baurel. For the fellow American expat and starving musician-neighbor, the inspired choice was the concert pianist and wit Oscar Levant, playing the role of Adam Cook. Another fortuitous decision was bringing in costume designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff was a Broadway designer but had worked for a spell in Hollywood. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets, which Ames, a former architecture student in Paris, could quickly envision. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafst.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next.

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

From left to right Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant

As the film opens, each character as played by Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary narrates that the happy characters depicted on screen, “are not me.” Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is a struggling artist that stayed in Paris after WWII. He sells his paintings (sometimes) on a street in Montmartre, where a rich widow discovers him and decides to support him (with strings attached). Oscar Levant as Adam Cook is a struggling pianist, the “oldest former child prodigy.” In a very clever later scene Levant as Cook fantasizes about playing in a symphony, which he is also shown conducting while simultaneously playing several instruments. This take-off of an old Buster Keaton film is still funny, especially since Levant being the only one that truly appreciates himself, also fills the audience with himselves. Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel is the successful singer and entertainer, now worrying about getting older, but  providing the yet unknown rival for the love of Lise. His singing performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, in classic Hollywood show-girls-down-the-stairs style, is a highlight of the movie. an american in paris guetary A  later dual number of Kelly and Guetary in “S’Wonderful,” where they are still ignorant of their rivalry, is pure joy. But Kelly as Jerry Mulligan is deeply in love with Caron as Lise Bouvier, made beautifully obvious in the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, their song and dance on the banks of the Seine, here amazingly duplicated on a painted set built around one of the those old MGM “cycloramas” is pure joy. Another scene provides laughs as Levant, sitting between Jerry and Henri while they each describe Lise and how much they love her, oblivious of each other’s common object of affection, all the while nervously smokes two cigarettes and chugs several coffees and whiskies.

A later scene is the wild Beaux Arts “Black & White” Ball, here providing a stark contrast to the disintegrating relationships of the two couples: Jerry Mulligan with patroness Milo (Nina Foch), and Henri with Lise. Henri even overhears Jerry and Lise’s tender, heart-breaking exchanges.

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Jerry spots the rose, which earlier he and Lise had shared and which now symbolizes their love

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

Forlorn, Jerry realizes he is just a failed artist, a stranger in a strange land. The ballet scene begins with Jerry sketching the scene of the Cheveaux de Marly, the sculpted horses flanking the Champs Elysees. He enters that sketched scene which is his ballet dream, the love of Lise symbolized by a fallen red rose. The ballet sequence will put to music and art all his hopes and fears, as he continually pursues Lise through various sets.

The Place de la Concorde by Raoul Dufy

The opening scene in the style of Raoul Dufy’s Place de la Concorde becomes Jerry’s  dream world.

Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-furies transition

The Furies, dressed in white and then red, beckon Jerry to pursue Lise. Gene Kelly as Jerry is dressed simply in form-fitting clothes, the better to appreciate his dancing and his physique.

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The white furies turn to more intense red furies

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The fountain at the Place de la Concorde serves as the dream dance floor to a united Jerry and Lise, dancing to George Gershwin’s exhilarating and romantic An American in Paris symphonic poem.

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A garden painted by Renoir

A garden painted by Renoir

Jerry pursues Lise to the floral backdrop inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, and as they dance, they hold the red rose of love. An American_in_Paris_5 Alas, even in dreams our dreams escape us. Lise has been transformed into flowers, soon to fall from his grasp. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-flowers The background has now turned into the melancholy monochromatic artwork of Maurice Utrillo. Gershwin’s music is also changing to American jazz-inspired melodies. An American in Paris Utrillo sacre-coeur Jerry becomes homesick, as had Gershwin in Paris, which inspired him to add the sounds of American blues and jazz into his musical composition. Gene-Kelly-in-An-American-in-Paris-gene-kelly-Utrillo Jerry’s homesickness is symbolized by his former side-kicks, the U.S. military service-men shown in the scene. They are not quite tangible, the artist’s paint still fresh on their uniforms.

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A Bastille Day celebration painted by Henri Rousseau

The scene turns to the artwork of Henri Rousseau: primitive; wild; and exuberant. Jerry’s service-men are now in dressed in cheerful suits, as is he, with the Pompiers now leading them forward in dance. And now Lise will reappear. An-American-in-Paris Kelly-suits-pompiers     An American in Paris 7 pompiers Here now we enter the more turbulent world of Vincent Van Gogh, the skies of the backdrops painted in swirled colors.

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A Cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh

The Place de la Concorde again provides the setting for the romantic and sexy dance of Jerry and Lise. The dance transforms into the climax, one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history – a perfect blend of music, dance, romance and art.
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But still the Furies beckon, transforming from red to many shades of yellow and orange.
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The setting now changes to the nocturnal and hallucinatory world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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A painting of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec

An American in Paris Chocolat dancing in the 'irish_american_bar', 1896 by Toulouse Lautrec
And now Jerry himself is transformed into one of Lautrec’s characters, a black stage dancer named Chocolat.
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This final ballet scene is the most exuberant yet, and Gene Kelly provides one of his best dance numbers, a masterpiece of choreography, dance, and art. In this cheerful dance he is joined by his dream Lise, taking on the historical dance-hall character of Jane Avril, another Lautrec favorite.
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Deep from his dream he begins to wake, only to realize that Lise is once again just a rose, and his colorful dream-setting turns black and white.
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Only this dream turns into his real dream, and Lise returns, running up the stairs of the real (set) stairs of Montmartre. The final kiss says it all, our love is here to stay.

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The film ends with a title card stating: Made in Hollywood, California. And so it was, where it also received 8 Academy Award nominations and won 6, though none for Minnelli. It won for Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett. Yet Walter Plunkett, who designed the costumes for the Black & White Ball scene, must have found it ironic, he who had designed Gone With the Wind, the two Little Women ( and the subsequent Singing in the Rain, Diane, Raintree Countee), among scores of others.  This would be his only Oscar, given for a relatively minor designing job.

Today it’s Singing in the Rain that is the crowd favorite and receives the “best musical ever made” accolades. No doubt that Singing in the Rain is the most cheerful and fun movie there is to watch, and the dancing is also outstanding. An American in Paris seems to be considered somehow less worthy because it strove to be art. But there is no more beautiful film ever made, and its integrated combination of music, dance, art, costume, and cinematography is the pinnacle of classic Hollywood film, and a proud achievement of the MGM Studio.

LE GRAND MEAULNES: 1967 IN FILM BLOGATHON

Its title is strange, its been out of circulation since it was released in 1967, it’s in French and has no subtitles, yet no film is so enchanting but ultimately tragic as Le Grand Meaulnes, based on the classic novel of the same title written by Alain-Fournier, his only novel published the year after he was killed in the first World War. I’ll need to start with the novel since it is so fundamental to the film. Whoever read it in their youth can never forget it. It influenced Jack Kerouac, and thus became the only book that Sal Paradise carried with him in On the Road. Author John Fowles considered it, “the greatest  novel of adolescence in European literature.” In the U.S, it is usually translated as The Wanderer, a fitting title. The film’s setting is rural France at the beginning of the 1900s. In a small school house the adolescent boys are struck by a newcomer, a taller and braver version of themselves. He is 17 year old Le Grand Meaulnes, Meaulnes is his last name, meaning Miller, or simply, the big Miller. He impresses all of the boys, especially 15 year old Francois Seurel, the book’s narrator and a central character of the film. Soon after arriving, Augustin takes a horse and wagon to go to wandering. The horse returns but not Meaulnes. Le Grand Meaulnes aka The Wanderer He is gone three days, and on his return he says little, only that he didn’t sleep. It is only after several days that he retells the story to Francois. His adventure was  the most marvelous and mysterious adventure. He had taken a horse cart and left town, but he became lost and then his horse got away. When looking for the horse he had to walk a long time and finally heard children’s voices. He followed them and found a chateau, where children were dressed in period clothes and were playing games. le grand meulnes 3 Augustin entered the Chateau and hid in an unused room and lay on a bed. Two actors were talking in another room , one a Pierrot, and invited him to the masquerade ball. Augustin found clothes and dressed as a marquis. There were few adults around other than the entertainers, and a few others, and the children and teenagers seemed to rule in this world. The children escorted him through the rooms into the Great Room where a banquet was being held for the engagement of the son of the house, Frantz de Galais, to the beautiful Valentine. All of the scenes at the chateau and its surroundings are photographed in blurred colored shots, evoking a surreal and mysterious world unlike the everyday world. le grand meulnes 6   le grand meulnes 7     le grand meulnes 5   Augustin joins in the merriment and eventually enters a room where beautiful music is being played on the piano by a dazzling young beauty. Children surround her and Augustin joins them, feeling like he belonged there. This was like a dream, a moment of perfect contentment, that she was his wife and these were his children.  He is kissed by a little girl.  Hours pass by in the Chateux and the next morning the festivities continue outside, where Augustin finds the young lady again and rows on the lake with her to an island. She is Yvonne de Galais, the daughter of the house.  When they row back she tells him that he shouldn’t follow her – that they were only playing at children’s games. When Frantz de Galais returns to the Chateau he announces that his fiancee has broken their engagement. He leaves word that he longer wishes to live. Soon, everybody leaves. Augustin leaves too, and from the carriage he sees Ganache, who played the Pierrot character, carrying the body of Frantz, who has a wound to his head. le grand-meaulnes-1967-05-g

Meaulnes thinks of nothing but of finding the chateau again. He tries to draw a map, and enlists Francois’ help in finding it. One day a mysterious gypsy comes to the town, with a bandage around his head. He enters the school and competes with Meaulnes for the attention of the other boys. But they become friends, and with Francois, they enter a pact of loyalty, swearing to come to each other’s aid whenever they hear a certain call of distress. With this he gives Augustin the address in Paris where Yvonne now lives. The gypsy is Frantz de Galais. As time passes, Augustin has gone to Paris and come back. Francois is now the schoolteacher. He is trying to have Yvonne and Augustin see each other at a local event after he finally meets her in a local shop and finds that she is unmarried. le-grand-meaulnes 7 Augustin and Yvonne finally meet again, but the magic has neen dispelled. He learns that her family became indebted because of Frantz, the chateau is no longer there and the boats and horses were sold off. Augustin’s feelings turned to gloom, and this turned to anger at the family for using its one old horse to pull a cart. Later that evening, in shame, he asked Yvonne’s hand in marriage.

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Brigitte Fossey as Yvonne de Galais

They wed at the local church seen below, only Frantz lurks at left, still in misery over his lost fiancee and needing the help of Augustin.   grand-meaulnes-1967-04   Francois and another friend try to get Frantz to leave and let the couple find their happiness, but as the couple settle in he wails the call that Augustin had pledged to follow to his aid. Augustin has been restless. He knows that the bliss that he found with Yvonne at the Chateau has been dispelled, and worse, that he no longer has the purity to deserve her. He must at least make right what happened to Frantz. As it happened, he had his own past with Valentine, Frantz’s former fiancee. And so he leaves Yvonne to join Frantz.

I should not give away any more of the plot, either of the film or of the book, as this really would become a “spoiler.” The character of Augustin is very much in the classical Romantic tradition, and yet his quest for perfection, orof this Garden of Eden is almost Medieval. The novel was magic realism before that term was used. As filmed, it is unique. It is one of those stories that is daunting to put to film, and yet the film creates it’s own magic. One can read the reviews on imdb.com to get an idea of the impression this movie left on those who have seen it. Jean Blaise played Augustin Meaulnes and Alain Libolt played Francois Seurel.

Although Le Grand Meaulnes came out in 1967, what relationship did it have with the other films of that year or with that era? The movie was directed by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, a cinematographer like his father. He made few films and only had financial  success with this one. Although it was a period film, its romanticism was in the air. Far From the Madding Crowd was another period film from that year. The idealism of Le Grand Meaulnes was very much in keeping with 1967, although the book had been written in 1913. By the following year in 1968, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. put an end to that, just like the WW I’s Flanders Fields of 1914 ended the life of Alain-Fournier.

Alain-Fournier

Alain-Fournier

 

BLOWUP: ANTONIONI’S CLASSIC FILM

Blowup is a film about the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. It’s a film that circles on itself, spiraling towards a bull’s eye of life’s contradictions. It’s a maze whose walls are lined with mirrors – flashing scenes of beauty and gritty reality in equal proportions. Its central story is about a journey continually interrupted, an odyssey with the protagonist’s pursuits constantly distracted or detoured. There are no easy answers in Antonioni’s Blowup, it’s like the pursuit of life itself – the blown-up life of modern society. 

This post was first written for the centennial of Antonioni’s birth in  2012. .

Courtesy Photofest

Courtesy Photofest

Blowup is a story that could only have been told on film. Perhaps it’s one of those “the medium is the message” phenomena, or it’s just that the story could only be told through the various arts combined in film. It was Michelangelo Antonioni’s creation, who wrote the screenplay, inspired by a short story from Julio Cortazar, and directed it in the swinging London of 1966. It portrays the flashy but empty life of a celebrity fashion photographer who views life through a lens and then follows the lens down a rabbit hole. Thomas, the photographer, is loosely based on photographers David Bailey and John Cowan, and who also has elements of Avedon in respect to that photographer’s later fascination with shooting gritty reality photos completely opposed to his beautiful fashion photography. The film opens with a scene depicting one of its several displays of contradiction, wherein the noisiest element in a modern urban setting is a jeep-load of mimes, carousing through London.  A quick cut then shows Thomas exiting a doss-house (flophouse) along with a line of down-and-out men. He’s dressed in torn clothes and unshaven. He walks down a street and gets into his convertible Rolls-Royce. As he drives off he’s later stopped by the mimes, then drives away. Contradictory visual images confront us on the street: two black nuns in white habits, and a Royal Guardsman guarding nothing.

Blowup Verushka

The supermodel Verushka plays herself, wearing the jet beaded slip that Thomas photographs her in.

 

He then drives to his studio where the impatient model Verushka waits for him. They have a frenetic photo shoot which is a small masterpiece of cinema. The final shoot, where he straddles her, is like sex with a camera, the lens a phallic symbol of his power. He climaxes by getting all the shots he needs, quickly getting up and flopping on the couch, Verushka is left on the floor, unfulfilled and wanting more. It is apparent that in this sexually liberated film sex for Thomas has been sublimated. In the next scene he shoots five models in mod clothes, barking orders at them but clearly unengaged. One of the models is played by the iconic Peggy Moffitt. As he’s about to leave the studio two young aspiring models barge in wanting their photos taken.  Thomas tells them he has no time for them. One is played by Jane Birkin, future wife of French singer Serge Gainsbourgh, the duo that recorded the scandalous erotic hit song, Je t’aime.

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David Hemmings with the “birds,” model Peggy Moffitt is shown seated. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Thomas seems to have it all. He has piercing blue eyes and the profile of Michelangelo’s David. Women and beautiful models flock to him. He drives a Rolls Royce and comes and goes as he pleases. He’s handsome and cool. He listens to Herbie Hancock, whose soundtrack infuses the film.Yet he seems alienated from life, a searcher seeking something that he knows not what.  

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Thomas visits the flat next door, where his artist friend Billy is painting a canvas, and lives with his wife played by Sarah Miles. She and Thomas share an intimate past, but the nature of their relationship is not divulged. In one of the purest statements made about art in film, the artist says to Thomas, as they look at his painting, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto. Like that leg,” he points to his canvas, painted in a half-pointillist-half cubist style, the leg barely discernible. “Then it sorts itself out. It’s like finding a clue in a detective novel.” And thus said, the key to the whole movie is pointed out: art is a stand-in for life, yet life intrudes on the creation of art.
Thomas drives away from the studio to visit an antique shop he wants to buy. He drives through a part of London where old buildings are being demolished to make room for new condominiums, an alienating landscape. He calls the  store a “junk shop” but he clearly likes antiques as objects of beauty. The grumpy old attendant at the antique store is unwilling to sell him anything, so Thomas will wait for the owner to arrive – another contradiction as she is a pretty 20-something in a short skirt. The park across the way looks inviting, an oasis of green that beckons him. He walks in and immediately his spirits lift. He snaps photos, frolics with birds, and skips up the stairs. The only sound is the rustling of tree leaves in the wind, a strong and recurrent element in the park scenes. He views a couple in tender play and embraces, she is young and beautiful, he is older and looks like a successful businessman or politician. Thomas begins photographing them. He hops over the fence to hide in the bushes so he can keep shooting unobserved. This “shooting” behind the bushes serves as a dual image for that of a gunman, who is also similarly hidden behind the bushes. Thomas continues photographing them from behind a tree.
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Thomas is finally seen, and is chased down by the woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave. She is very upset and wants the film, hinting by her nervous behaviour the clandestine nature of the lovers’ meeting. “This is a public place and everyone has a right to be left in peace,” she tells him. “I’m a photographer,” he tells her (meaning he is an artist, creating art – this is not about life). “It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.” She gets nowhere with Thomas, who also wants the photos for a book he is doing. She goes back to find her lover, and not seeing him, quickly looks behind a tree, then runs off. Thomas goes back to the “junk shop,”, and impulsively buys an old wooden airplane propeller, perhaps a symbol of escape, that will later be delivered to his studio.
Then Thomas meets his publisher for lunch, and shows him his portfolio of doss-house inhabitants, along with other gritty realism shots of butchers and homeless people, all for his book. He’s excited about the photos he’s taken in the park. As additions to his book he says they are “peaceful” compared to the “violent” ones they are looking at. Thomas adds, “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free.” “Free like him,” his publisher says, looking at a photo of a homeless man.” Thomas rushes out when he sees someone snooping on him and his car. That character is never defined, although there was commentary, made years later, that this was the role of Vanessa Redgrave’s young lover who commits the murder, and some scenes that were edited out of the film.  Thomas drives off, going through a peace rally. The protesters’ home-made placards carry typical slogans – though some are more interesting when you read them from their back-side.
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Jane, played by Vanessa Redgrave, has tracked him to his studio. She asks for the negatives, while he invents stories about himself. He plays jazz, teaching her about the upbeat, and they share what is likely a marijuana cigarette. He gives her a fake roll of his film, and she takes off her top. Just as they are about to get intimate they are interrupted by deliverers arriving with the propeller, which Thomas now finds to be a nuisance. He then finds her standing beside the long rolls of suspended backdrop paper. When he spreads open one of these , she appears wedged between two sheets, an allusion to the work of photographer Irving Penn and his famous “corner” photographs. She leaves thinking she has the correct roll of film.

BlowUp corner

After two interruptions, Thomas now begins developing his film. He pins up one after the other to his wall. He then storyboards all his prints, as would a film director, to make sense of the  story. Thomas here is trying to use a technique of art to explain life. While looking at them he follows the woman’s gaze to a spot in the bushes. These sequences are wordless and without music, yet tense from Thomas’s efforts of trying to uncover a mystery. He is more excited in this process than he has been in anything else he’s done. Antonioni’s technique of almost soundless action is very absorbing. We are so accustomed to a musical score telling us how to feel in a movie that here we are left to concentrate on the action directly in view, looking for absent cues and forced to draw our own impressions.

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Blowup David Hemmings 6
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In the photos Thomas is shocked to see a hand holding a gun hidden in the bushes, and realizes he’s just saved a man’s life. He is lost in thought about what could have happened, but then his door bell rings.
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Again Thomas is interrupted, this time by the same two “birds” that want to be models. The end result is a free-for-all, with tearing off clothes and carousing on the floor. Whether there was sex involved is left to the imagination, but the girls were nude. Near the end of this frolic, Thomas looks back at his park photos and gets re-absorbed, telling the girls to leave. He blows-up more photos and is shocked to see a body. He blows up the photo again until the body is just a pixilated image of light on dark, completely indecipherable. His intial use of art to explain what has happend in life has resulted in a blur.
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Blowup body 2
But the image leaves little doubt in his mind that the man he saw with the woman has been shot and killed. He rushes back to the park to find out – to confirm in life what happened, only to find that life has been lost in this scene. It is night, but the body is still there behind a tree. He touches it to be completely sure it is not just his imagination. He tries phoning Jane to talk to her about what happened but she left him the wrong number. He realizes that he never saved the man. And the idyllic park, the “peaceful” park, is where a murder has just taken place. He realizes that this seeming oasis is as bad as the rest of the urban chaos. Thomas returns dejectedly to his studio, where all his belongings have  been ransacked and his photos have disappeared. He finds just one photo left, the pixilated, indecipherable image of the “corpse,” which could just as well be a photo of anything. When Patricia, played by Sarah Miles, comes in, he tells her, “I saw a man killed this morning.’ She asks how it happened. Thomas says, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.” Indeed, he was photographing the event instead of experiencing it. When he shows her the remaining photo she says, “It looks like one of Bill’s paintings.” Reality and illusion have traded places.
Thomas drives off. He sees Jane in a line in front of a store window. When he looks again she has disappeared completely from the shot. He goes around the back alley looking for her and enters a night club. Here the Yardbirds, including Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, are playing the rockin’ Stroll On to an audience that appears comatose. This visual contradiction is another of Antonioni’s tricks – the contradiction of a lifeless audience during a blazing rock performance. Thomas searches for Jane.  On stage, Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and throws the neck out to the audience, which only then goes wild and scrambles to get the guitar neck. Thomas grabs it and fights off the crowd to keep it. He runs out of the building, only to throw the guitar neck on the sidewalk as he leaves. He had been searching for the etheral Jane, and was only interested in the experience of claiming the guitar neck in a struggle, and latching on to something. He seems always able to possess material things while people and relationships evade him.
Blow-up- Yardbirds

Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds playing Stroll On, a version of Train Kept A-Rolling.

 

David Hemmings to Verushka as she smokes a joint: "I thought you were in Paris." "I am," she replies. She is one that believes in her illusions.

David Hemmings to Verushka as she smokes a joint: “I thought you were in Paris.”
“I am,” she replies. She is one that believes in her illusions.

His interrupted odyssey continues. He goes to his publisher’s house where a party full of young hipsters drink and smoke pot. His publisher Ron is high too, but Thomas tries to convince him to go to the park to see the corpse. “We have to go to the park and get a shot of it,” Thomas says. “I’m not a photographer,” Ron answers. ” I am,” Thomas says. They enter the room where the pot is being smoked. In the next shot Thomas wakes up in that room, but the house is completely deserted, everyone here too has disappeared.  He leaves and gets his camera to return to the park. But the corpse has disappeared –  both reality and illusion (and art) have escaped. The leaves rustling in the wind are the only sounds to be heard.

Blowup -image-de-Blow-up-
As Thomas walks through the park, the jeep-full of mimes roar back into view, coming full circle from the beginning of the film. Two of them begin playing a game of tennis, with make-believe rackets and an imaginary ball. They bring with them both their contradictory images and their illusory reality
Blow-up- final 1

When the imaginary ball goes over the fence they look over at him to fetch it. He buys into the illusory reality, and he runs through the grass to fetch the imaginary ball, which he then throws  back. His smile slowly disappears and he looks forlornly at the grass, as if realizing the emptiness and illusory nature of his life and his own experiences. The shot of Thomas recedes into a wide-screen shot of grass, in the opposite process of a blow-up, but just like the corpse, he disappears from the screen. Was he too an illusion? Or was he just the creation of a film director that put him in the picture and just as easily cut him out. Perhaps it’s like the painting by Magritte, The Treachury of Images where the illusion has become the reality, but the reality is really an illusion.

blowup final

  I first saw Blowup in France during the summer of 1967 after graduating from high school. It left an indelible impression on me. Though the film has several sequences in which there were no words spoken, nor any music played, it’s the sounds of the movie that keep ringing in my head. I still hear the locomotive sounds of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On, and whenever I hear leaves rustling in the wind I think of Maryon park as filmed in Blowup. The film has been considered a masterpiece, or a complete enigma, and criticized for its affected artiness, or its obtuse plot. Alfred Hitchcock stated in 1978 that he thought Antonioni and Fellini , “…are a hundred years ahead of us,” and that Blow-up and 81/2 are bloody masterpieces.” To me it captured the era perfectly, much more so than many of the notable “outsider” films of the late 60s.
Antonioni did not believe in delivering a pat story with a happy ending in his films. And with Blowup, the movie is like an onion that you  peel back its many layers of meaning. In an interview with Roger Ebert he said, “I never discuss the plots of my film.” “How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about.” He also went on to say,”I depart from the script constantly, I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.” This was indeed the process by which Thomas tried to make sense of the killing in the park. Regardless of his technique, Antonioni was an artist, and the statement made by the painter Billy in Blowup applies well to Antonioni. For his artistic elements he looks for color to use in his shots, whether natural or applied, and he painted entire buildings bright colors just for a certain look in his scenes. He also looked for angles and interesting composition elements to add to his frame. Contradictory visual cues infuse this film. In Blowup, Antonioni frequently used mirrors and reflective surfaces to add a multi-dimensionality (or etherealness)  to his characters and their settings. Antonioni also stated that, “I think the theme of most of my characters is loneliness,” and that “…they find little to sustain them. They are looking for a home.” For all the external success of Thomas in Blowup, a good-looking guy in the swinging London of the 1960s, he was basically unhappy with his life and his surroundings. He was like Odysseus on his episodic  journey home. The late David Hemmings said at that time that Antonioni got it right, “…that is the sort of life we live today in London. We are all available to whatever happens to come along. We do not exercise choice in our lives.”
The film is filled with the Mod clothes of mid-60s London. The models in the early scene wore exaggerated versions of Mod outfits, a common slant for runway or editorial purposes. It is especially interesting to compare the Mod clothes of the young people shown with that of the older Londoners that walk the streets. The line between Mod and not was very clear. David Hemmings’ garments were simple, and since the entire film took place over 24 hours, he only had two costume changes. Still his clothes were distinctive and showed him to be of the creative world vs. business: white denim pants, a wide black belt and black low-rise boots, a checked blue long sleeve shirt, which he wears without a t-shirt, and a dark forest green blazer.  The model Verushka wears the most striking outfits: the opener in a sequined loose flowing but short gown open at the sides; and at the party a snakeskin and lozenge-patterned pants-suit with high suede boots. No costume design credit is given in the film, although Rebecca Breed is credited as wardrobe supervisor. As such it’s likely the clothes were off the rack, and with the Mod-look garments to be found in London in this early film, that was probably a good choice.
 As an 18 year old, transitioning from high school to college, uncertain about life and what it would bring, seeing Blowup was revelatory, even for a self-styled hip kid like me from the swinging L.A. of the 60s. But if even a successful bloke like Thomas was losthe who had everything I could have wanted, what chance did I have? And yet there was always the music ringing in my head, the music of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On.

DESIGNING HOLLYWOOD: COSTUME SKETCHES at FIDM

 

FIDM Dolly Tree

Original costume design sketches provide a fascinating look into how fashion, whether from the Jazz  Age or from the Renaissance, was molded into the the service of a film character.  And more, the sketches themselves turn into a rabbit hole for entering into the bygone world of film production during the golden age of Hollywood. I’ve been collecting these relics from the old studio system for over 25 years. One hundred of the more interesting ones are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum & Galleries  for the Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection. The exhibition will be open from June 11 through November 1, 2014. FIDM is located at 919 South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. The costume sketches will be complemented by several of FIDM’s own Hollywood costumes, plus original studio wardrobe workbooks and muslin pattern pieces.  And on special loan from the late costume designer Mary Wills’ daughter Marri Champie, her  Oscar statuette from the Best Costume Design for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. One of her costume sketches from this film, and several of her other films, are represented in the exhibition. FIDM Museum Curator Kevin Jones has worked tirelessly along with the Museum staff to bring this exhibition to life.

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Christian Esquevin before the Opening Reception

 

Irene - Patricia Vanever in Easter Parade 2

Costume sketches may look beautiful, but they were the working tools of the studio. They were the product of the studio’s in-house designer, in the case above, from  Irene Lentz Gibbons at MGM, designing for a model to wear while parading in Easter Parade in 1948. A sketch artist, Virginia Fisher, made the illustration. Sketches were done in watercolor, either on paper or on illustration board.  They were made to look good because they had to impress the film’s producer and director, who would have to approve the sketch. For a lead actress, she would have approval rights also. Often their initials are on the sketch – so the sketch was passed around from sketch artist to designer to producer to director to star until everyone was happy. If they weren’t, the sketch was modified or started over. One sketch on exhibit, a beauty from designer Orry-Kelly, has fox fur trim at the shoulders boldly crossed out in pencil.

OrryKelly 2

Once approved, a costume sketch  has still more work to do. It now goes to the studio Wardrobe Department, where the costume on paper becomes a costume in 3-D.  It now became the job of the cutter-fitter to translate the sketch into muslin patterns, these in turn would be used to cut the chosen fabric for the costume. Before the costume was sewn, however, muslin pieces were pinned for fit on a dress form made to the star’s size, which was then used to sew the costume by the seamstresses. A fitting was done on the star by both the Head Fitter and the Designer. Embroideries and other decorations were then added. The sketch above was designed by Orry-Kelly for Kay Francis for an unknown Warner Brothers film circa 1934. a very sporty golfing outfit.

Edith Betty Hutton

The costume sketch above was designed by Edith Head for Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 1944, directed by Preston Sturges. It was illustrated by a sketch artist rather than Edith herself. There are several costume sketches from Edith Head in the exhibition, and yet many of them look very different one  from another. This is because Edith used several sketch artists in her long career, and they had very different styles. Even for costume designers that were very good illustrators, the time pressures of the job did not usually allow them to do their own costume sketches (with a few notable exceptions).

Mary Wills - Joan Collins The Virgin Queen

The costume sketch above was a design by Mary Wills for Joan Collins as Beth Throgmorton,  Sir Walter Raliegh’s love interest in The  Virgin Queen, 1955. The star of the film was Bette Davis, who is also represented in the exhibition by a sketch from the same movie. The designers that did their own illustrations had very distinctive styles. Mary Wills, was one, and others included Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Kalloch, Irene Sharaff, Donfeld, and Theadora Van Runkle, all  during the time of the old studio system.

Swanson2

Most every costume sketch is interesting, many are gorgeous, and a few are simply iconic. Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.designed by Edith Head, in the costume where she goes back to visit the Paramount studio and meets with C.B. DeMille, that’s iconic. But even iconic images develop gradually. The costume sketch for Gloria Swanson is shown above, and it even has Billy Wilder’s approval initials.  But before it was worn on the set, the skirt was modified, the muff became all white, and Gloria Swanson wore a hat with a feather stuck in it, an idea of Swanson’s that recalled the silent age of film. Of all the designers, Edith Head was always the most obliging about modifying her designs to accommodate an actress, and consequently, her costume sketches are frequently different than the costume’s on-screen appearance.

Mary Wills - Our Very Own

Here’s another sketch by Mary Wills, for Ann Blyth in Our Very Own, 1950, one of those fabulous films of the 1950s. This design if for a very unique bathing suit, both a striking costume sketch and an eye-catching and fetching piece for the beach.

Costume sketch Rose - Paris

Helen Rose became MGM’s top designer after Irene left to start her own line in 1948. This is one of her designs for Edie Adams in Made in Paris, 1966, which is actually one of Rose’s last films. This film did continue the tradition, started in the 1920s, of having fashion shows as part of the film’s plot, designed by the film’s costume designer. This one of course designed by Helen Rose. By 1966, the studio system of having long-term contract designers was coming to a close. Helen Rose left MGM in 1966 to start her own fashion line.

 

Jean Louis sketch 3

Jean Louis was another of the very talented costume designers working in Hollywood  that began in couture.  Above is his design for Shirley Jones in Bedtime Story1964.  In the mid-sixties, Hollywood films, and film fashion, was in transition. The movies were caught during changing tastes and needing to appeal to different demographics. Fashions were changing too. Film fashion was no longer, with few exceptions, starting fashion trends.  Film fashion would now have to look at the street.  Hollywood’s designers would have to be younger, or at least design younger.

Head Natalie Wood Sex&Single Girl

Sex was coming back into the movies, not seen this much since  the pre-code Hollywood films of the early 1930s. The costume design  above is for Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, designed by Edith Head.

Donfeld  for AnnMargret in Cincinatti Kid

Donfeld was one of the young designers in the field. He had a deep respect for the veteran designers. Like many of them he used one name – combining Don and Feld, his real names, into his working name. He had a very active career in the 60s and 70s. Costume sketches sometimes never make it into the final film.  The costume sketch above was designed by Donfeld for Ann-Margret as Melba in The Cincinnati Kid, 1965. Sam Peckinpah was the film’s first director, but producer Martin Ransohoff didn’t like some of his overly sexy scenes and fired him. Norman Jewison was hired to take over. The costume designs were done over too and the costume sketch above along with several others didn’t make it into the film.

Donfeld 1

Donfeld also designed the costumes for for Prizzi’s Honor in 1985, for which he received a Best Costume nomination. The sketch above is for Angelica Huston. Donfeld was the right choice to blend the 1940s style film noir costume into  the 1980s aesthetic.

The Designing Hollywood  exhibition at FIDM is not arranged chronologically but rather thematically, into five categories. These are Studios, Film Genres, Designers, Wardrobe, and Stars. If you live in, near or can visit the Los Angeles area, please plan to view the exhibition. These costume sketches, or others,  are rarely on view.

The sketch at the top is by Dolly Tree for Greta Nissen