blow up, break away: mod revolution

Blow Up (1966 dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) begins with David Hemmings playing the character of Thomas photographing a lithe blonde model (Vanessa Redgrave?). As he steps over her with his camera, the model writhes prone on the floor. Thomas shouts pre-orgasmic phrases usually relegated to a breathy moan, “give it to me”, “yes, yes, oh yes!” The mock sexual conduct climaxes as he leans over his camera and kisses the young model’s ear. The shot is taken and he exits to sit spent on the couch, as she rises, unsatisfied, and leaves the room. The scene establishes the unilateral direction of power given to the photographer and the blatantly sexual dynamics of the photographer/model relationship.

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The next scene is another photoshoot, this time with several models, one of them a cameo by Peggy Moffitt. Moffitt is in her classic Vidal Sassoon geometric hair and makeup of her own design– mirrored metallic triangles set beneath heavy liner and lashes. Moffitt poses snake-like, each hold a seamless reflection of the previous pose and a midpoint for the next.

The photographer, pedantic and patronizing, stops the fluid dance, shouting “re-think it! Start again!” and continues to berate and belittle the models before him. “Wake up!” “Smile, I asked you to smile- do you know what a smile is?” he barks before ending the shoot and the scene.

Blow Up’s intention, in part, was to mirror a phenomena of the swinging 60s, exemplified by designer Rudi Gernreich, his photographer/collaborator William Claxton and his model/collaborator Peggy Moffitt. The three came to define the mod look of the 60s, and created an entirely new paradigm for modelling, fashion and fashion photography. Despite her cameo in Blow Up, Moffitt’s modelling career with Claxton and Gernreich was defined not by a paternalistic exploitation of her choreography, but by a collaborative spirit in which she and Gernreich worked together to define a “Total Look” of the 60s.

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Gernreich’s designs stirred controversy (his monokini continues to shock even by contemporary standards) and defined the era. For a runway show in 1971, Gernreich outfitted the models in fairly standard knitted separates, but accessorized them with dogtags and rifles. Only a few months after the student shootings at Kent State, Gernreich reiterated his refusal of normative standards of fashion and voiced his politicization of the medium, stating “Women are on the warpath, they’re tired of being sex objects.”1

Surreptitiously using the medium of fashion to implode it’s own codes, Gernreich and Moffitt blew apart conventions in order to question them and their relevance in an ever expanding cultural zeitgeist. Reconstructing the troubling power binaries of photographer/subject, the collaboration brought about an entirely new lens for dressing and photographing the female body. Reversing the course of Dior’s “New Look” which structured and constricted the feminine form at the chest and waist, many of Gernreich’s designs were voluminous, taking inspiration from the caftan. Many more featured transparent panels or bared breasts to accentuate the body rather than conceal and reform it. Moffitt’s body in these clothes did not seem particularly more susceptible to the lustful eye, but rather engaged it– spoke directly to it as an equal participant rather than as a submissive.  

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No longer a sexualized object to inspire desire, Moffitt’s direct gaze and choreographed movements revealed her artistic control in the deployment of her body. Moffitt was able to animate a narrative for the designs that pushed them into the creation of a politicized, feminist world; one where the function of design is no longer to sexualize the female body but to assist in its liberation.

From the beginning of their collaboration in the early 1960s, Moffitt designed her own makeup for each shoot and runway show. The shared creative syncopation pushed Moffitt and Gernreich down similar aesthetic and conceptual paths simultaneously and wordlessly.

The most amazing example of our being on the same page occurred with the 1968 resort collection. By this time I was living in New York and had no idea what Rudi’s collection would look like. Just before he came to town, something compelled me to design a very exotic Siamese face. When I saw the clothes and Rudi saw the makeup, neither of us could believe it. It looked like the same person had designed both.2

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Released the same year as Blow Up and Gernreich and Moffitt’s 1966 collection film Basic Black, Bay Area-based artist Bruce Conner created BREAKAWAY (1966, dir. Bruce Conner), a 5-minute experimental film starring a 23-year old Toni Basil.

BREAKAWAY (1966) is unlike much of Conner’s body of collage and assemblage work while maintaining his line of questioning. Filmed by Conner himself, a rarity in his body of work, the film questions cinematic convention through medium and representations of the female body.

This notion of remixing found footage was key to almost all of his films, although he did also insert his own footage, here and there. BREAKAWAY is the big exception as it’s completely his footage, but its a driven, frantic, complex montage and its aesthetics show he’s continuing his exploration of the representation of the female body.” – Rudolf Frieling2.

Featuring Toni Basil as the object of the camera’s gaze and the singer of the accompanying title track, BREAKAWAY acts as a collaboration between Basil’s choreography and voice and Conner’s manipulation of medium.
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The film is five minutes long. It opens with a credit, “Antonia Christina Basilotta” (Toni Basil’s full name), followed by the title, BREAKAWAY. Conner often played with movie titles and authorship. A Movie (1958, dir. Bruce Conner), for example, disrupts narrative time by inserting the title cards and countdown sequences, “A MOVIE… BY BRUCE CONNER” throughout the duration of the film. Immediately crediting Basil, and only Basil, alerts the viewer of the collaborative nature of the film.

The first 2.5 minutes are a spasmodic, strobing exploration of Basil’s body and movement set to driving Northern Soul beats. Toni Basil is first introduced to us in an outfit that could have been a Gernreich design from the cutting room floor. She wears a black bra and leggings cut through with holes that double as polka dots. The polka dots both reveal and disguise her body as she hits poses. Her poses are smooth and articulate, but spliced with black frames that strobe and distort the movement.

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Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966. Collection of MoMA NY.

The song, composed by Ed Cobb and sung by Basil, is the main narrative force of BREAKAWAY. Piano riffs punctuate loose driving guitar and drums to push forward lyrics like

“I’m gonna break away from all the chains that bind/ And everyday I’ll wear what I want and do what suits me fine/ Hey, hey I’m gonna break away, break away from the everyday”

Like a manifesto for a newly liberated world, the lyrics follow Basil as she gyrates with the deliverance of a lone dancer in their bedroom.

Sometimes credited as being the father of the music video, Conner often drew inspiration from music, as in a video collaboration with DEVO for the song “Mongoloid”, Cosmic Ray (1962 dir. Bruce Conner) an experimental film set to the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, and his photographic exploration of the 1970s San Francisco punk scene (some photos also featured Toni Basil). BREAKAWAY syncs its strobing camerawork with the heavy downbeat to transfix the viewer.

The camera roves back and forth and Basil moves in and out of frame. Like a moth trying to absorb itself into a streetlamp, the movements are jarring and spectral. Despite the frenzy, it’s clear that Basil is an experienced dancer, at one point she twirls with the precision and expertise of a ballerina. Her choreography animates and narrates Conner’s camera histrionics. Cigarette burns pulse in an overlay through the frame, mirroring the polka dots of Basil’s initial outfit and grounding the film in the geometric zeitgeist of the mid-60s.

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As the song powers on, Basil jumps in and out of costume through nighties to nudity, and though the costumes have a sexualized air, the spastic camera eludes any eroticism. There is simply not enough time for desire to ferment in her image. The viewer is constantly trying to catch up.

Once the song ends, the film stops its forward motion and is set in reverse. The viewer takes in the entirety of the visuals again, this time in reverse motion– Basil’s movements seem even more convulsive when detached from linear time. Like a possession, the viewer soaks up the lyrics in their warped retrograde.

Though the lighting, camerawork, time reversals and the synaptic structure of BREAKAWAY create the film’s reverie, Basil’s ownership of the screen and her movements imbue the work with a feminist re-reading of the cinematic starlet– un-fixing them from the static subjectivity of the silver screen. BREAKAWAY not only ruptures this subject/object relationship, but, in reference to the title, breaks from traditional cinematic narrative by denying a fixed beginning-climax-ending structure.

Scott MacDonald: “Have you assumed that people would look at your films on a rewind, as well as watch them projected?”

Bruce Conner: “I look at them on the rewind.”3

Conner and Basil’s collaboration spanned from their first meeting in the early 60s and included many other famous faces. The collision of creative forces also brought in Teri Garr, Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper. Hopper recalls holding the lights as Basil danced for BREAKAWAY, and later cast Basil in Easy Rider (1969 dir. Peter Fonda). This collaborative network was one of many for Conner, as he flitted through different crowds and subcultures.

“I really did have the same vision as he did, and since I was the vehicle, I knew I could help drive the vision.” — Toni Basil4

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Bruce Conner (in tub), Toni Basil, Teri Garr, and Ann Marshall, 1965. Photo by Dennis Hopper. Courtesy of and (c) The Dennis Hopper Trust

After her collaboration with Conner, Basil herself began working with film as a medium. She created 8mm films involving superimposition, still frames, and physically manipulating the film. Her experience exemplifies how collaborative nodes and networks span outward, influencing and providing the backbone for movements.

BREAKAWAY existed in the same moment as Blow Up and Gernreich’s designs as modelled by Peggy Moffitt. The three depict a similar world, one driven by a collusion between art, film and design–  a new paradigm, geometric, swinging and liberated. The failure of the opening scene of Blow Up in contrast to the two artifacts of the time is in it’s depiction of a unilateral power dynamic between the photographer and model. The relationships exhibited by Basil/Conner and Gernreich/Moffitt showcase how collaborative work can transcend normative power dynamics to incorporate politicization and radical world making. This division of authorship allows for creative capacities and possibilities that would not exist in a vacuum of power.

1.Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton, “The Rudi Gernreich Book” Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991
2.Leigh Markoupolos, “Rudolf Frieling: In Conversation with Leigh Markoupolos” SFAQ, 2016. http://sfaq.us/2016/11/rudolf-frieling-in-conversation-with-leigh-markopoulos/
3.Chuck Stephens, “Exploded View: Bruce Conner’s BREAKAWAY”, Cinema Scope, vol. 53. http://cinema-scope.com/columns/exploded-view-bruce-conners-breakaway/
4.”Bruce Conner – BREAKAWAY – Art + Music MOCA TV.” https://youtu.be/5CHtEASlzG8

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