The American Scholar: The Lure of the Enigmatic

David Hemmings, Gillian Hills and Jane Birkin in Explode, 1966 (Everett collection)

Upon its release in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni Explode blew student filmmakers and literary intellectuals at Columbia University, including me. As soon as I entered college in the first year, I sat at the feet of the elders at The Colombia review and King’s Crown Trials and took a crash course in film as an art form.

In avant-garde circles in general, there was a cult following around European directors such as Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Agnès Varda. Antonioni’s films in Italian—The Adventure (1960), The Note (1961), and The Splint (1962) – offered an appealing mix of enigma, boredom, eros, existential fatigue and Monica Vitti.

The Adventure has a beginning and a middle, but no real end. The character played by Lea Massari disappears; her disgruntled lover (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend (Vitti) try to find her, and the film comes to no resolution. It would be as if, having deleted his heroin 45 minutes after psychology, Hitchcock failed to provide an explanation and compensatory story to make up for his absence. The ambiguity in The Adventure step up in Explode.

Based in Antonioni Explode, his first feature film in English, based on a story by Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar. He set the film in London, the “mod” headquarters during the heyday of the Beatles, Carnaby Street and psychedelic nightclubs. David Hemmings plays Thomas, a nervous fashion photographer with artistic instincts. As well as taking pictures of professional models who look like heavily made-up models, he spends his time fending off aspiring models, visiting an antique shop, and hitting up pubs and clubs.

There is a very hot scene with Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills trying on clothes and playing sex games with the photographer. In an American film, such scenes would affect the plot. They’re all red herrings here, though they do contribute to the film’s powerful atmospheric effects.

When Thomas slips away for a photo shoot, he takes his camera with him to a park. There, in an otherwise uninhabited patch of prairie, he clicks on a man and a woman in a clandestine embrace. When Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), the woman in the scene, realizes what he’s doing, she rushes to confront him. She asks for the film. She even follows him to his studio, visibly ready to do anything to recover the photos. After shaking Jane into a fake roll, Thomas develops the film, zooms in, and lo and behold, there’s a gun in the bushes.

Is there also a corpse? Did Thomas photograph an inadvertent murder? What should he do about it? Hemmings hems and haws, what the soundtrack anticipates: “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” from The Lovin’ Spoonful? plays in the background earlier in the film.

There are elements of the classic murder mystery in Explode. A corpse is there, and then it is no longer there. The incriminating photos are there, and then, because the photographer’s studio with the incriminating enlargements was ransacked, they disappeared. The effect is less suspense than paranoia and bewilderment. If the film has an allegorical dimension, it is this great saying of the 1960s: “Nothing is real” – or, more precisely, nothing stands the test of empirical existence if it is not checked in. To some degree, then, the film is about films, about what we see versus what we think we see.

Besides the devious ambiguity of the plot, I would point out two other things that set this major film apart: Explode offers a spellbinding snapshot of the zeitgeist, and it ends beautifully, with an unforgettable final sequence.

The spirit of London’s Swinging Sixties pervades the film. It’s like everyone is stoned. In a club, the Yardbirds – a popular band, with Jeff Beck on guitar – perform their song “Stroll On”. When Beck smashes his guitar on stage and throws the fretboard into the crowd, a frantic struggle for memory ensues. Thomas gets to the heart of the matter and emerges triumphant. Leaving the club with his trophy, he soon throws it away. And when a passerby picks it up, looks at it, and throws it away, the parable of what constitutes value is complete.

During an evening for which the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock provides the score, Thomas meets the beautiful German model Verushka. “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” he said. “I a m in Paris,” she replies, pulling on a joint. Before the evening is over, Thomas goes to take LSD with his agent, Ron. At dawn, he returns to the park, expecting to find the corpse he saw earlier, but it is no longer there.

On his way home, Thomas meets mimes on a tennis court, playing with invisible balls and rackets. They make a gesture to show that their ball is lost and ask Thomas to retrieve it. He follows the instructions, mimes the action, then the camera pulls back, Thomas disappears and the inevitable whisper from the audience tells us that we have seen something extraordinary, the lure of the enigmatic.

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