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The future of an illusion

Reflections on 40 years spent in the dark
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 15, 2006

When I first realized that movies would, for better or worse, dominate my imagination forever, I really gave no thought to the forces at work creating these transfiguring images on a screen. The movie that converted me was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, my first X-rated flick (I was 14), and I was probably less interested in the big-picture implications of the film’s success (the highest-grossing foreign film at the time) than in the sylph hipness of David Hemmings (dead in 2003 at 62 of a heart attack in Bucharest, and by then a red-faced grampus with eyebrows rivaling those of Michael Dukakis), the exhilarating and threatening nonexistence of the narrative, the film’s murky metaphysics of reality and illusion (the photograph that repeatedly blows up into blurred pixilation, the mimes’ tennis game at the end), and, to be honest, the glimpse of Jane Birkin’s pubic hair (the first such in cinema, at least on this side of the Atlantic, apparently) in the now-legendary “purple paper scene.”

That film ushered in a flow of masterpieces — foreign and domestic — that still astonishes. Within a single year, you could stroll down to a local cinema (in Boston, anyway) and see, in addition to Blow-Up: La Guerre est finie; Masculin-féminin; Persona; The Battle of Algiers; Loves of a Blonde; Bonnie and Clyde; The Graduate; Point Blank. . .

You get the idea; it seemed the normal state of things. Who knew it was all a fluke? Forty years later, when Borat has beaten out The Santa Clause 3, when people are praising ersatz crap like Babel, I can appreciate what a privilege it was to get drawn into cinema at what was perhaps its peak of genius.

Apocalypse Now

I also can see now that genius probably didn’t have everything to do with it. The time had more than its share of them, to be sure: Antonioni, Bergman, Godard. And more were on the way. But other forces — economic, political, cultural — had to intermesh, allowing a brief window of opportunity, not unlike in Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England.

The old studio system had not yet been subsumed by its new masters, the corporations; audiences were rejecting the studios’ musty products, and so they desperately sought something new. The 1933 Production Code, hopelessly outmoded, was losing its hold over the screen. The sexual revolution was taking no prisoners. An unpopular war stirred up political discontent. The civil-rights movement was turning violent. Foreign movies were picking up on all this turmoil and change. Now American filmmakers would have their chance, too.

War, riots, oppression, bell-bottom pants, and, finally, Richard Nixon: a small price to pay for some of the greatest films in the history of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back

As I said, it seemed it would never end. Nor, in a sense, did it. The Hollywood renaissance would continue, in fits and starts, with diminishing returns, at least until 1980, and to some degree, up to the present day. For those who could see, though, the signs of bad things to come were there from the beginning.

International corporations were moving into the vacancy left by the studio moguls. The MPAA ratings system that supplanted the old Production Code in 1968, lauded as an enlightened step forward at the time (Midnight Cowboy, in 1969, was the first, and only, X-rated movie to win a Best Picture Oscar), would emerge as yet a new twist on the old suppression. It reined in the sex while encouraging All-American violence, reserving its kiss of death, the X or later the NC-17 rating, for upstart indies and those unaligned with the great studio powers.

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Related: Cinema of Shadows, Fall back, EXTRAS! EXTRAS!, More more >
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