Thursday, January 19, 2012

Classic Throwback: Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

Following up L’Avventura (196), which I was underwhelmed by but hope to re-visit someday, Michelangelo Antonioni co-wrote and directed Blowup, his first English-speaking film and one of his most acclaimed. Blowup won the Grand Prix at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival and he was nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (which is focused more on sound recording than photography as a means to establish the mystery) is evidently influenced by Blowup, though still a fantastic film in its own right. Brian De Palma’s Blowout (1981) is another.



Blowup is actually set over the course of just over a day – chronicling the life of a nihilistic glamour and fashion photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings). The film opens with Thomas running late for a photo shoot at his studio with Veruschka (a popular glamour model at the time, apparently) after spending the night at a doss house (a homeless estate) taking photographs for a book he is close to completing about social structure in London. Later that morning he has another shoot with several vapid models that pose absently in a number of impractical items. He storms off the shoot, bored by their lack of enthusiasm and reward for his efforts. The earlier shoot has been voted as one of the sexiest scenes in film history – as Thomas aggressively instructs Veruschka to pose in a series of sexy positions, kissing her on the neck to arouse her and evoke emotion, before eventually climbing on top of her and capturing her lying on her back.

Later that day searching for a peaceful image to conclude his book, he discovers an unpopulated park and starts snapping away at a couple, a young woman and an older man, who seem to be sharing a quiet and innocent moment. The woman (Vanessa Regrave, unrecognizable) soon approaches him distressed, queries his suspicious presence, and asks for the pictures. She later continues to press her case at his studio, turning up on his doorstep. She doesn’t successfully persuade him with her nervous flirting, but actually further piques his intrigue.

Turns out that the pictures contain a mystery – evidence of a killing – discovered once Thomas palms off the woman with the wrong film, develops and enlarges the photos. He discovers a man with a gun lurking in the bushes, and the distinct corpse of the man the woman was with. Has Thomas accidentally documented a murder in these captures? He becomes briefly obsessed, unable to articulate to anyone else what he has discovered, but eventually returning to his daily routine when it seems impossible to prove anything. But is Blowout really about the mystery at all? Was there actually a mystery?


As we watch Hemmings run back and forth between his dark room and the studio where he is hanging the enlarged portraits – we feel just as anxious to see what is revealed in each photo. Antonioni does a great job hiding the image until Hemmings has pinned it up and closely examined it himself, drawing out the suspense. Often they don’t reveal anything but there is still an ever-present level of suspense, heightened by the woman’s nervous energy and evident anxiety about what the photos meant. Actually, it’s quite creepy, and it was one of my favourite sequences in the film. The events preceding this revelation are quite slow – and though we are effectively immersed in Thomas’ dissatisfaction with life, his boredom, and his alienation from society - Blowup hit its peak here and became more of the film I had expected.

There are several bizarre sequences following his discovery – his giggly romp with two young aspiring models on the floor of his studio, a sullen, lifeless concert, a drug-drenched party, and a mimed tennis match. Each has little bearing on the central mystery – but exist as obstacles to him solving the mystery. He enters the nightclub looking for the woman, and later tries to explain the situation to his agent at the party, but can’t find the words. In the end it is never solved, and we are never sure if there really was a mystery. The mimed tennis match offers us the most insight – concluding that his disillusionment and social alienation could conjure up all kinds of alternate realities as a means of distraction. He is never without his camera, constantly seeing the world not as it really is, but through a lens, as a photograph. Sometimes photographs capture the moment, and sometimes they lie. Antonioni seems to be very interested in this idea – documenting London culture through his lens as an outsider, but not living this ‘swing’.



I guess Antonioni lives it through Hemmings, who is well suited and gives great natural energy to the role. He is completely convincing behind a camera, enough to assume that he had some prior photography experience. His work has left him socially detached, and as long as he is taking pictures and making money from them, he pretends to be content. He cares little about the moral obligations he has to his photographed subjects and for the briefest of moments (half a day) he finds interest in something other than his art. He has responsibility. But then responsibility, like himself, just evaporates. It’s crisply produced, finely shot (the captures of Hemmings as he drives around are interesting - like the camera is perched on a raised platform in the back seat of his car), ambiguous and even flirted with a ban (controversial shots of Redgrave lounging around Hemmings’ studio topless). Though slow and at times emotionally distant, it is a very intriguing film, and one that I did not love, but still found rich and satisfying.

15 comments:

  1. Hmm...sounds very interesting, I like the idea behind it! I've had this on my To See list for a long time, maybe I should give it a try soon!

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    1. It is a great idea. It just takes a while to get to the point where the mystery forms. There are some now-famous sequences, which make this essential viewing, and warrant a repeat. You should give it a go.

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  2. Maybe Antonioni isn't for you? I have a friend who hates Terrance Malick with every fiber of his being, so I can understand not syncing with a directors taste. I enjoy photography and this certainly seems sensual, so maybe I'd enjoy it. Thanks for the write up Andy.

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    1. I actually kind of liked this film. L'Avventura lost me. I had no idea what to expect, other than the fact that it had influenced The Conversation (on of my favourite films) so I guess I expected a mystery of some kind. When Hemmings blows up the photos, and puts together the potential murder, it made my skin crawl. It is an odd reaction, but I really got absorbed into the film then. But then there are tangents, and further distractions - and the mystery just disappears (the point), but nothing matched the tension of that scene. I love Malick, so I don't agree with your friend, but after being disappointed by Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch, I wasn't so high on Sam Peckinpah (until I saw The Getaway, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) so it does happen sometimes. I own L'Avventura, so I'll give it another go one of these days.

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  3. This was the first Antonioni film that I've seen as I have it on DVD. I would often tell people to see this one first since it is his most accessible film based on the four films I've seen from him so far.

    I would recommend giving L'Avventura another shot. It's not an easy film to watch as there isn't much of a plot to begin with. Still, it is a very entrancing that explores the world of alienation at its most grand. Then check out L'Eclisse which is the third part of his alienation trilogy and then watch The Passenger with Jack Nicholson and the late Maria Schneider. I hope to do more Antonioni soon as I would love to do an Auteurs piece on him.

    BTW, what you think of the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck & Jimmy Page? I thought they kicked ass.

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    1. This is my second Antonioni - and the main reason I wanted to watch this film is because Wim Wenders stated that his biggest influence was Antonioni and Blowup. I recently watched Paris, Texas and loved it, so I was intrigued. I could easily watch it again. I bought the DVD for L'Avventura (one of the few blind purchases I have been disappointed by) so I have it sitting here - just haven't had the urge to give it another shot either. I thought that scene was pretty great. I actually didn't recognise Beck and Jimmy Page (I know!) - but it was kind of an in joke with the smashing of the guitar...

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  4. Yeah, I didn't like L'avventura the first time I saw it either. I've become a bit more attuned to him since then, though, and liked it on a second viewing. I didn't care much for this when I first saw it, too, so must give it another go some time.

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    1. I didn't think it was a 'masterpiece' but I appreciate how important it was at the time - both in documenting London media culture, and in Antonioni's career. It has been heralded a classic, and has been clearly inspirational - but apart from a few scenes I found downright creepy, I remained puzzled by (but intrigued) where this story was going.

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  5. Though I prefer L'avventura, I think Blowup is equally masterful. I love the second half of the film, how confused and concerned Hemmings becomes. The sequences in the nightclub and the drug party are creepily brilliant. Antonioni is fantastic. Definitely give L'avventura another shot.

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    1. It gets pretty weird there in the end, starting with the strange orgy with the giggling young wanna-be models. Then, in his attempts to track down the woman and 'solve the case' it all fizzles into nothing - as does Hemmings. The mimed tennis match was a pretty awesome way to conclude the film. I own the L'avventura DVD, so I will certainly give it another go someday. Thanks for reading, and sharing it around.

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    2. A true masterpiece. some sequences were so brillient that they qualify for show off but once you remember who created them you know that you have to be respectful.

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