Friday, May 11, 2018

Blow-Up (1966)

UK / Italy / USA, 111 minutes
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Julio Cortazar, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Herbie Hancock, Yardbirds, Lovin' Spoonful
Editor: Frank Clarke
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, John Castle, Veruschka von Lehndorff, Sarah Miles, Yardbirds

Somehow it always seems to slip my mind that Blow-Up—the front end of a great double feature with Blow Out—is a movie by director Michelangelo Antonioni. All the evidence is there in the strange way it moves and refrains from meaning, of course, notably at the ending, yet Blow-Up is so steeped in the "Swinging London" version of the day-glo '60s that it seems qualitatively set apart from his earlier monochrome exercises such as L'Avventura and L'Eclisse. In fact, Blow-Up would pair equally with any movie that takes on the '60s as we understand them now—Midnight Cowboy, for example, or Repulsion. The Yardbirds famously show up in a can't-miss cameo, even if they are only called on to ape the Who.

But the maddening elusive ambiguities, along with the wondrously strange and beautiful imagery, are there as they always are in an Antonioni picture. In Blow-Up, as one example of his meticulous aesthetic, Antonioni relied on a strict color palette that required some repainting—including of roadways— to get things to the right shades and hues. Between Blow-Up and L'Avventura, the most obvious trait in common is Antonioni's misleading approach to mystery. His ideas about mystery are more on the lines of philosophy—e.g., what is the meaning of this existence we are in?—and less about whodunits and capers. Yet both pictures focus on crimes (or at least a reasonable likelihood of crimes) which by intent are then never resolved. If that's your thing, come and get it.

I do have some impression that Blow-Up is considered an outlier by aficionados of Antonioni. Perhaps it is somehow too literal, too connected with real-world markers—a sell-out, in a word. I'm not on board with this view as it is the one Antonioni movie I actively enjoy watching, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. I love all the stuff about London, the '60s, and the fashion industry. David Hemmings as fashion photographer Thomas now appears hilariously hackneyed, sexualizing his photo sessions with a stream of dirty talk: "That's it baby, give it to me, give it to me, just like that," etc. It's possible this was new in 1966 but it seems a little silly now, though admittedly there's an effectively chilling element of professionalism about Thomas as he works. He appears to believe in himself enough as a serious artist to convince us too. His early session with Verushka is one of the best scenes in the movie.

But back to mystery. L'Avventura was only a matter of a disappearance, a genuinely mystifying event in many cases, but not necessarily a crime. Blow-Up by contrast is so single-mindedly tantalizing about the possibility of murder that it's hard to believe there wasn't a crime. Out on a random walking shoot one day, Thomas enters a park, spies a couple cavorting about, and surreptitiously begins taking pictures. When the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), notices him, she reacts strangely. She wants the pictures. At first it seems a matter of decorum—the man she is with is much older, perhaps it is a clandestine affair she wants to protect—but her efforts to recover them become increasingly extraordinary.

As a result, when Thomas develops the negatives he examines the images closely and sees odd patterns, or thinks he does. Or we think we do. In the pictures, Jane seems to be reacting to something behind a section of shrubbery. Thomas works out the angles of the small park (a pretty little theater in its own right) and the pictures he has taken, and begins to blow up sections of them. At one point an image seems to show a man in the shrubbery holding a gun.

Things in the case start to get annoyingly hard to pin down about here so I want to stay with this part of the movie a bit longer. It's what Brian De Palma ran with in Blow Out, offering an audio version of Thomas's purely visual investigation (there's also a scene in the Swedish TV production of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that owes a favor to Blow-Up). This is really the most convincing evidence for Thomas as an artist, or at least someone who can focus on something to the point of fierce obsessiveness.

De Palma makes his version of the story more like a conventional mystery, with bad guys and solutions, so I'm tempted to argue it's the more satisfying of the two (one more reason besides chronology to put Blow Out at the back end of the double feature). For Antonioni, as mesmerizing as he makes the darkroom scenes, the murder mystery does not appear to be the point of his movie in any particular way. I'm not sure what explains his making such a fascinating mystery out of it in this sequence, except maybe he got a little obsessed himself with doing it, much like Thomas.

So that's how Blow-Up goes and you are well advised to take it on its own terms: the somewhat dated but real sizzle of the session with Verushka, the high mystery investigation of the park and darkroom, and then the Yardbirds cameo, which is so wonderfully true to the look and feel of a rock band performance in an art gallery event. A good comparison is Yo La Tengo as the Velvet Underground in I Shot Andy Warhol—thrilling and false at the same time. Then it's on to the ridiculous ending which explains nothing, except probably metaphorically. Enjoy!

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