Blowup (1966), The Shout (1978), Cowboys (1991)

Capsules of Blowup (1966), The Shout (1978), Cowboys (1991) first published in Little White Lies 80, as part of Exhibition: 100 Mould-Breaking British Films

Blowup (1966)

Modelled in part on a Julio Cortázar short story, and in part on the career of David Bailey, Blowup offers a day in the life of a doubting Thomas (David Hemmings), as modernist maestro Michelangelo Antonioni follows the in-demand photographer on a quest for hidden meaning amid all the artifice and emptiness of Swinging London.

A master of the definitive image, keen-eyed Thomas discerns – or thinks he discerns – a murder plot captured unfolding in the negatives of some snapshots he took casually in a park, but then struggles to grasp any reality behind the blurry blowups, even as the central relationship in his own life is exposed as a sham.

Here the rock-and-roll Sixties are depicted as a pantomime where either sight or sound must be supplemented by the (imaginative) viewer to create a full, if speculative, picture that is entirely subject to the observer’s paradox.

The Shout (1978)

Helmed by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and shot entirely in North Devon, The Shout offers a foreign observer’s view of the dysfunctional English psyche at play, caught between modern and more primitive urges.

During a cricket match at an asylum where the boundary between inmates, psychiatrists and outsiders is not so clear, Crossley (Alan Bates) tells the jumbled tale of his past rôle in driving a wedge between composer Anthony (John Hurt) and his wife Rachel (Susannah York). This bizarre love triangle is driven as much by uninvited guest Crossley’s intense charisma as by the magical powers (including seductive spells and a fatal shout) which he claims to have learnt from an Aboriginal shaman.

While Crossley is obsessed with the site of the human soul, the film (drawn from a story by Robert Graves) entirely dislocates our sense of where – and how – the dynamic of its erotic drama is unravelling.

Cowboys (1991)

Cowboys is not a feature, but a series of six mostly monochrome shorts, animated by Phil Mulloy (to a discordant soundtrack from Alexander Balanescu and Keith Tippett).

These often impressionistic stories interconnect to portray a stark, bleak world in mosaic, sparsely decorated with the generic trappings of an oater (cacti, stables, saloons, pistols, etc.), but also defamiliarised by television sets, apartment blocks, hobby horses, tabloid newspapers and stetson-wearing characters (drawn like skeletal grotesques) whose bestialised behaviours, priapic passions and puritanical hypocrisies reflect modern viewers no less than early pioneers.

It is not a pretty picture, as greed, lust and violence dominate these hand-drawn landscapes, ruling the western frontier with conformity and a (lynch) mob mentality. Commissioned by Film4, these three-minute pieces, as confronting as they are surreal, expose humanity as collectively driven ever backwards by atavistic urges that ensure we always remain essentially hicks in the sticks. 

© Anton Bitel