Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

And we’re supposed to be the generation of emotionally empty consumerism and hedonistic, material excess 😆 ?  I know Michelangelo Antonioni was all about the emptiness of that hedonistic lifestyle and showing that on film (“L’Avventura” was an expertly crafted, if not extremely (though intentionally) boring example of that technique), but even in a movie with a what you’d call a “plot” like “Blowup,” he takes it to an extreme.  The movie basically asks the question: what happens when an emotionally-castrated, extremely bored photographer in that hip and chic but terrifyingly dull 1960s London thinks he’s photographed a murder?  And the answer?  Well, not much.  In other words, same-old, same-old with Antonioni 😛 .

What we see of Thomas from the outset, from an emotional sense, ain’t pretty.  Everything he does, everything that happens to him, is nothing more than going through the motions…and it all involves his work of photographing the height of hideous fashion excess.  While shooting a model early on, he’s basically using a photo session as a substitute for sex: it’s the only time we see him truly excited about something, as he climbs all over this woman, screaming in ecstacy, basically using the camera as a phallus.  And, of course, it’s all an act: when he gets all the shots he needs, he’s back to his morose self, disregarding his subject as if she was his means for a strange kind of sexual gratification, and now he has no further use for her.  Through Thomas’ gruff exterior (because I’m not sure if he even has an interior to speak of), some gorgeously-photographed but insanely over-the-top “chic” sets and costumes, and long periods of no dialogue or music as Thomas observes things around him, Antonioni captures that good-looking but truly empty wasteland of ‘60s Britain pretty damn well.

…Or at least how he saw the state of ‘60s Britain.  He’s sure as hell trying to convince you that something’s extremely off-kilter when an aesthetic craze involves white backgrounds a la “THX 1138” and outfits looking more like dystopian Halloween costumes.  But why should I take his word for it that this was an emotionally empty time and place when I just watched “A Hard Day’s Night” one week ago?  That was a movie that was made at about the same time, in the same place, and was one of the most exuberant and energetic movies I’ve ever seen.  In that movie, the music, the Beatles’ performances, and the entire groupie culture gave off a vibe that there was an energy in ‘60s Britain that you wouldn’t believe.  And because of that energy, “A Hard Day’s Night” was an incredibly exciting film.  And now you have “Blowup,” whose vibes of a good-looking but dull and emotionally empty setting make it…well, a dull movie.  And I think one problem is just that the things we see simply don’t hold up over time.  “A Hard Day’s Night” never becomes outdated because it focuses on a mindset rather than just a time and place, and clearly the exuberant feel of the Beatles and their music has not become outdated 40 years later and never will.  “Blowup” focuses on the things around Thomas and on place over mindset, from the ridiculous costumes to the sets to the robotic people, and thus it’s outdated.  I was reminded of the psychedelic party scene in “Midnight Cowboy” and how that scene that screamed “60s” stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise eternal story of a strange but touching friendship.  What we see in “Blowup” is so outdated that I couldn’t bring myself to care that Thomas’ lifestyle is so empty.  Combining the chic, hipster music and colors and what-not with that slow, observant pacing was bizarre, and in a way, cheesy.  The long set piece where Thomas follows the couple in the park, snapping photos as we’re inundated with gorgeous shots of the park and deafening silence, tiptoes the fine line between fascinating introspection and mind numbing, check-your-watch time filler.  Thomas’ dull life makes for a dull film, and his sexist, workmanlike repetitions make for a repetitious film.  In trying to comment on how a time and place can suck the soul out of a person, Antonioni managed to suck the soul out of a film.  The very outfits and props and chic lifestyles that he thought were drowning out a society’s zest for life drowned out any emotional connection I tried to make with the film.

But damned if Antonioni doesn’t do boring well.  I’ve only seen two of his films, but he’s already become an absolute enigma of a filmmaker for me.  He basically has the ultimate excuse to make boring movies: he’s trying to.  In “L’Avventura” and now “Blowup,” the big thesis of Antonioni’s is that chic, materialistic culture makes us emotionally, culturally, and sexually numb, and he captures that pretty much perfectly.  You even look at when the “plot” starts and Thomas thinks he’s photographed a murder, and you’re actually convinced that this is really how a bored, numbed individual handles the prospect of witnessing a murder.  A long stretch in the middle of the film involves Thomas developing picture after picture, enlarging little sections of that picture, endlessly studying little smudges or indecipherable blips, and they could be a gunman in the bushes or a gun or Vanessa Redgrave looking at something suspicious, or they might not.  And in between, he gets into a near-violent orgy of naked wrestling with a couple of potential models who’ve followed him around, where of course the laughing and tackling seem as artificial as the models that Thomas photographs.  We’ve become acclimated to Thomas’ lifestyle of nice cars and outfits, that gruffness, and day-by-day exposure to beautiful women, so we’d expect him to get distracted from the business of obsessing over a possible murder, as if picture-based crime solving is just a way to pass the time.  Sex, verbal abuse, endless study of pictures, they’re all just a way for Thomas to get through the day.  That obsessive pouring over photographs was compelling on its own in a police procedural kind of way, but those distractions did give the whole thing an air of authenticity, to Antonioni’s credit.

The problem is that authenticity and the prospect of a bored photographer chasing a possibly nonexistent murderer through photographs doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling film watching experience.  I look at this and then at Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (essentially a remake of “Blowup” in terms of basic plot), and the difference is almost night and day.  Gene Hackman’s brilliant performance as surveillance expert Harry Caul in Coppola’s film oozes paranoia: you’re never sure just which word the possible murder victim inflects on that recording, and you’re in Harry’s shoes, not sure where his apartment is bugged, or if it’s bugged at all.  In “Blowup,” I suppose Thomas becomes paranoid, but it’s more of a paranoia used to alleviate his boredom than anything.  It’s a work-related hobby and a time killer, not an obsession.  And I suppose that makes sense since Thomas is exactly what you’d expect to be as a produce of the chic generation that we laugh at today, but…meh.  Harry Caul was such a compelling movie character because he was an outsider from that numbing society: a paranoid hermit who trusts nobody, and so as a result we look at everybody in that film with his weary eye.  Thomas, on the other hand, is thoroughly ensconced in his society, so in a way “Blowup’s” ability to cast a critical eye at the flaws of that society from a protagonist’s point of view is diminished.  Truth is, Thomas just ain’t a very compelling character, just like “Blowup” ain’t a very compelling film.  It’s pretty to look at with the excellent cinematography that records gorgeous but lifeless outfits and sets, and it’s interesting to see how Antonioni takes his sweet time in telling a story that’s not a story, but there’s little substance to back it up.  A movie can be pretty to look at and be a textbook in cinematography and set/costume design all it wants, but when it’s as empty as the society it’s trying to criticize and just plain dull, technique becomes irrelevant.

I felt no empathy for Thomas, this rather soulless, work-obsessed man with nothing but contempt for women (he pretty much goats Vanessa Redgrave’s Jane, the possibly-sinister, possibly-innocent subject of his photographs in the park, into seducing him), so why should I empathize when he delves headlong into a murder mystery that may not even exist, hedonistic distractions aside?  Like Coppola nearly a decade later, Antonioni was right to not make the possible murder itself the focus, but rather the guy who obsesses over it, and how society drives one of its own to possibly invent an extreme situation like murder to make a mental escape.  I’m just not sure the mindset of a character like Thomas is worthy of the kind of scrutiny that he gives those photographs of his 😕 .


3 comments so far

  1. Anonym on

    I see you’ve completely misunderstood the film. Congratulations.

  2. Simon M. on

    It’s what I do best 🙂

  3. fche626 on

    lol, Antonioni is difficult and rather dull at times, but I still love him…and I’m obsessed with Blow Up

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