Monday, August 07, 2006

Blow up

Locating the Park used in Antonioni’s classic film, proved to be both a challenging and rewarding indulgence of curiosity.

Michaelangelo Antonioni was a master at capturing the meaningless of existence. In “The Passenger”, Jack Nicholson’s reporter trades in his identity more out of the desperate need for something to do. Bored with life, he discards his identity, taking on that of another man’s. Unfortunately for him, nothing really changes as a result and he ends up being pursued, quite ironically, by himself. There is no escape in the end.

In a similar way “Blow Up” taps into the zeitgeist of London in the 60’s only to scathingly mock the emptiness of fashion trends and the accumulation of “stuff.” Actions are the result of boredom, the need to “do something”- questions of motivation becoming blurred by an all encompassing sense of malaise. Act now and reflect later, if at all, seems a fair credo for both films.

Half murder mystery, half Art-house classic, “Blow Up” as its title suggests, forces you to question the very nature of perception and understanding as an image is quite literally “blown up”- bought to life and interrogated mercilessly. It may well be a film concerned with the coolness of alienation and hedonism, but more than that is an examination of the often indivisible line that separates reality from illusion.

What never fails to stand out when seeing this film is the now famous sequence in the park. For those unfamiliar with the set up this scene finds fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) strolling listlessly through London, a camera draped across his shoulder. He soon happens upon a small park, hauntingly surrounded by what look like impenetrable thickets. It is here that he spies a young lady (Vanessa Redgrave) intimately engaged in conversation with a man. Sliding the lens cap from his camera Thomas begins taking photo after photo of her.

As all this unfolds tree tops sway menacingly, the breeze somehow stirring a mysterious energy within the park. One senses there is more going on than appears, yet the audience remain prisoners to the images presented, Antonioni hinting at something just beyond the reaches of our perception.

Of course we soon learn that there was “something” going in the park. After developing the film in his lab Thomas discovers what looks like a person standing in the bushes nearby, with further examination revealing what looks like the presence of a gun. Aimed squarely in the direction of the couple, Thomas soon concludes that he unknowingly foiled a murder attempt. The images though are not clear, and even as each one is “blown up” there remains a lingering doubt as to what is being seen.

Thomas returns to the park, takes more photographs and soon discovers what he thinks is a body laying in the bushes. Blow up after blow up soon ensues as he obsessively dissects the implications of each image. Is it in his imagination? Did he foil a murder? Did someone see him take the photographs? The harder he looks, the less sense he is able to make of things, his fragile hold on “reality” all but dissolving, amid last ditch efforts to grasp at an image that is destined to stay just out of reach.

Ultimately, as you’d expect from Antonioni, there are no clear cut answers. The developed film along with the copy ends up being lost and his final trip to the park uncovers nothing. The magic of “Blow Up” lies in Thomas’ obsessive quest for the truth, and in the curiosity that possesses him, but most of all in the park itself- an inviolate and beguiling presence throughout the film.

It is for these reasons that I felt duty bound to find this “Park.” I needed to see for myself if it was as eerie and mysterious as in the film. My curiosity, like Thomas’ had been roused. A few Google searches later I had the details. About 90 minutes out of London in a spot called New Charlton lay “Maryon Park”. I chucked the camera in the back pack along with the A to Z and set off.

Finding Maryon Park was no easy task. I must have asked at least a dozen locals if they knew where it was, each of them informing me they’d never heard of such a place. Finally, after zigzagging on buses for an hour I was told that there was only one park in the area and that it must be the one I was looking for. From the Road it looked unremarkable, cracked steps and overgrown grass all but concealing the entrance. Strolling up the hill, the incessant din of Saturday traffic reverberating in the background I readied myself for disappointment.

Weaving my way past some basketball courts and through a tunnel of dark overhanging branches I soon found myself in Maryon Park. At the risk of sounding corny it was like entering another dimension. For those that have seen the film the tennis courts remain, neatly neck laced by rows of flowers it looks as if the miming sequence could have been shot that morning.
The grass is lush and green, perfectly manicured and kept. Skirting the perimeter is the same little asphalt path, the area surrounded by a thick suburban forest. So acutely precise and reminiscent of the film is this first impression that you may find yourself feeling like you have just walked into the playground of a master film maker.

Still, I was here to find the area used in the photograph sequence. In the film it is presented as a park within a park and recalling a set of steps that twirled up to reveal the hidden pocket of urban wonder I scanned the area.

As in the film, a set of steps uneven and crumbling, presented themselves to my eyes. Making sure to walk slowly and enjoy the moment I moved up them, quietly excited at the thought of what may be at the end. Bearing in mind that “Blow Up” is this year 40 years old, I would not have been surprised to observe some measure of change, development and advancement impinging on and altering the layout.

What I did discover was a serene little patch of park, hemmed in by dense thickets, nursing one wooden bench (a lone figure was passed out on it) and the same configuration of trees. The grass was long but somehow still neat, the space possessed of a tranquillity that was charged with mystique.

Any thoughts concerning the outside world were soon peeled from my mind- like fruit being divested of its skin- and as I flicked on my camera, earnestly taking shot after shot, I became less and less aware of why it was I was there to begin with. I photographed the trees, the thickets, the figure on the bench, the sky, the grass- everything I could see. It was like meeting a movie star, but much more interesting.

The trees swayed in the same haunting fashion, the space itself eliciting the same unsettling feelings as when I first saw the film. Much like Thomas’ character, I was left feeling like mist, an inconsequential presence passing through a place that would both outlast me and bear witness to truths both beyond my reach and capacity for understanding. In short, the experience was akin to walking into a movie frame- the atmosphere, aspect and environment all perfectly preserved.

All this leads one to speculate; Does Maryon Park possess its own haunting air, unique and distinct from other London parks, or is it the product of my having watched and re-watched Blow Up one too many times? It is more than likely a combination of both and whilst it certainly appeared to be free of corpses and guns, it must be noted that the lens on my camera is not all that powerful.

It seems apt to end with a quote from Antonioni who once remarked, “I always mistrust everything which I see, which an image shows me, because I imagine what is beyond it. And what is beyond an image can not be known.” That, in a nut shell is “Blow Up” and the alluring mystique that remains preserved within Maryon Park.

For the curiously inclined Maryon Park may be found just off Woolwich Rd in New Charlton. SE7.