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August 30, 2006

Stills are to movies what the alphabet is to a novel - or so Christopher Peachment concludes after viewing an exhibition of stills from Antonioni's Blow-Up at The Photographers' Gallery

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Antonioni's Blow-Up: London, 1966 - a photographer, a woman, a mystery...
The Photographers' Gallery
8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7HY
21st July - 17th September 2006
Monday - Saturday 11am - 6pm (Thursdays until 8pm)
Sunday 12pm - 6pm

I went to this exhibition in order to recapture my memories of Blow-Up (1966), which I had not seen for at least twenty-five years, but which is still burned in my memory more strongly than any film of the last decade.

This is common for any film by Antonioni, who has a way of looking at scenery, location and architecture unparalleled in cinema. He has an unerring eye for finding and capturing the genius loci of unpromising, neglected or overlooked landscapes.

I lived for a while in Bloomsbury in the mid 1970s, near the then recently constructed Brunswick Centre, which is currently undergoing a face-lift. At the time I thought no more of it than any piece of 60s concrete brutalism, and pitied the inhabitants. It was only useful for the supermarket, and the underground cinema, then an Odeon, now the Renoir. Now the Centre has become a listed building. Like whores and politicians, buildings only have to grow old to become respectable.

Then Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) came out, one of the best European films of the 70s and a serene, airy meditation on disquiet of the soul. There is one brief scene in which Jack Nicholson is seen waiting at the foot of some concrete steps for Maria Schneider, which was shot in the Brunswick Centre. It made me see for the first time the beauty of the place. The steps have since been demolished, but I can't pass the spot without the memory of how an artist can reveal dormant beauty, and remind you to look at the world more intently.

So too with his last film Beyond the Clouds (1995) made when he was 80 and suffering from a stroke which had left him speechless. Wim Wenders stood in on the set as a kindly presence. The critics were luke-warm over the film, which inevitable shows signs of infirmity. Yet there are scenes which etch themselves onto your retina forever. The fog-filled ditches and streets of Ferrara are especially vivid. When I went there for the first time after seeing the film, I could find my way around thanks to the film.

So too with the all-glass building in Paris, used for a touching meeting of minds between Jean Reno and Fanny Ardant. It is actually a small art gallery and set of offices, but in the film is used as an apartment. I had been there five years before seeing the film, but had forgotten its most haunting feature: the noise of the wind vibrating the building's thin supporting wires. Sure enough, Antonioni had caught and reproduced it exactly.

I didn't go to the little-known Maryon Park, past Greenwich on the Woolwich Road, SE7, until long after seeing Blow-Up. Little had changed however, and to this day it retains its eerie, sinister quality. The small thickets of trees still look like they could harbour a dead body. Or not, since ambiguity is one of the film's themes.

The white railings surrounding the dense green copses have disappeared, alas, and there are some high rises spoiling the skyline. I don't know when they were built, but if they were there when Antonioni was filming, then he airbrushed them out of the final cut. Further evidence of an immaculate eye and a capacity for taking pains.

This collection of stills taken on set by Don McCullin and Arthur Evans do nothing to advance any understanding of the film. How could they? Stills are to movies what the alphabet is to a novel. No more than an unmediated element. Stills have no use to a movie other than for publicity. Indeed they are often more a hindrance to the appreciation of a film, suggesting that a movie's beauty can be frozen in time.

The useful part of the exhibition is a three minute video clip, showing a sequence of David Hemmings enlarging his sinister negatives and for the first time noticing that Vanessa Redgrave and her anonymous older lover might have committed a murder. It is still the most gripping sequence in a movie which tends towards a cool formalism.

Antonioni could always teeter close to the edge of pretentiousness, and in this film he fell clear over. Remember the troupe of mime artists, "playing" tennis without a ball? No? I would rather forget them too.

But there is still the empty park, looking like an arena caught by the early Parisian photographer Eugene Atget, once described by a French critic as a recorder of places which looked like the scene of a crime from which all humans have fled.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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