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The anachronism of The Knack and Blow-Up

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When I first discovered the joy of foreign films, I decided a salutary mission would be to see all the films that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the non-US winners of the Golden Palm (Palme d’Or) Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The venture teaches a few things. One is that there are some great films out there. Another is how even highly recongized awards can miss the mark. The latter is demonstrated by recent viewings of the Golden Palm winners for 1965 and 1967, both films about “swinging London.” Both have become anachronisms.

The Knack… and How to Get It won the 1965 award. It’s a comedy about a young but relatively staid British teacher with a boarder who has “the knack” for attracting and bedding beautiful young women. Throw in an oddball self-invited new boarder and a young female newcomer to London and the stage is set for a slapstick adventure by these free-spirited and hip young Brits. Today, though, the slapstick falls flat and occasional efforts at being somewhat innovative tend to come off as nonsensical. Director Richard Lester also directed The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). What personality and fame allowed the Fab Four to pull off doesn’t work here.

Faring slightly better is Blow-Up, the 1967 winner. It tells the story of a narcissistic (but oh so mod) young fashion photographer who accidentally stumbles across a murder. That mystery and the photographer’s focus on it are about the only things that make the film tolerable. Much of the time spent on hip life in London comes off as inane, particularly an almost laughable scene of a room of pot smokers at a party. Yet the mystery allows Blow-Up to better The Knack. It at least examines what it takes to move a self-involved and self-centered individual temporarily away from himself. Unfortunately, that exploration and the mystery account for only about a third of the film with the rest expended on a seeming intent to show just how hip and cool London life is (which, it should probably be noted, includes a performance by The Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page).

No doubt these films today provide retrospective look at the culture of the period (including women being portrayed largely as sex objects and little else). To that extent, they serve a purpose. And it strikes me that portrayals of life in mid-60s London is what enthralled the Cannes juries. Decades later, though, these gushing looks at swinging London come off as clownish. Thus, to the extent the Golden Palm Award hoped to recognize exemplars of timeless film, these two awards missed the mark.

By the way, winning the Oscar for Best Picture weeks before these films won their awards were My Fair Lady (1965) and A Man for All Seasons (1967). The Oscar for foreign films those years went to The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains respectively, both Czechoslovakian films about life during World War II that far surpass either The Knack or Blow-Up.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • http://duckmafia.blogspot.com Quack Corleone

    Huge disagreement about Blowup! It’s much more than a portrait of “swinging” London. There are so many themes and ideas the film explores, including the dominance of sight over the other senses (think of the last scene with the mimes), the role of the camera (is the murder, if it occurs, caused by the camera?) and, connected to that, the question of whether the act of seeing is passive or active (can seeing something change it?). Then, of course, there’s the actual “blow up” scene, which is richer than most entire films. Several critics, for example, suggest that the scene is meant to place the main character in the position of theatre spectator (in a dark room, watching “frames” that create a narrative) and in our own position in regards to the Blowup itself. Does the main character truly see what is there or what he imagines? This could easily become a question of whether Blowup can be deconstructed and “blown up” to decipher meanings, or is, like you hint at, simply a slab of life in “mod” London. Am I inflating the the film so much that I’m missing any meaning and inventing my own, or are you not looking close enough to see what’s actually there?

    ;o)

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