Thursday, September 11, 2008

Movie Review: Blow-Up

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's films criticize the vapidity and shallowness of modern culture, while simultaneously revealing a paradoxical attraction to its tragic emptiness. Artists, never prone to be self-satisfied nor blissfully unaware have established a long tradition of heaping scorn on society, painting it in dour, sterile, sickly shades. In Blow-Up we see the vapidity of modern life inherent in the lives of every character---perhaps most keenly through David Hemmings' burnt-out, rude, thoroughly selfish and self-absorbed fashion photographer. If the film were released now, reviewers would be quick to label the character sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, yet despite numerous flaws the photographer also possesses a kind of rough charm and resulting roguish charisma that very nearly redeems his at times reprehensible conduct. This is precisely the point. Antonioni's Swinging London is a world both seductive and empty, full of pretty people, drug use, casual sex, and those who document the hollow superficiality of the proceedings in order to make their living. This is what has always struck me as ironic. To an extent we the audience are supposed to relate deeply to these characters. On the other hand, these very same people live lives of such unrepentant inhumanity that it's hard to feel sorry for them when they fail or fall short. Blow-Up effectively glamorized the nihilistic, hedonistic late 1960's, likely winning converts to its brand of gorgeously amoral Bohemia, but what many seem to have missed altogether is the film's bold condemnation of the undisciplined ethos of the period.

The only way for Hemmings' photographer character to escape from this anti-human universe-- a world which he has long since grown quite weary-- arrives, quite unexpectedly, in the form of a murder. In true Antonioni fashion, the crime is presented in such vague and indefinite terms that it's just as plausible that the photographer conjured the whole thing up out of thin air. Many critics far more talented than I have speculated in great detail as to the true nature of the director's cinematic intent in this important regard, so much so that I have little, if anything to add to the discussion.

In my own defense, however, one of the marvelous things about films like Blow-Up is that they invite an almost infinite number of alternate interpretations, each of which could quite easily be correct in their own way. In this way, the film questions the nature of reality itself, positing whether humans are even capable of making coherent sense of the senseless. As the photographer's friend and next-door-neighbor, an abstract artist, remarks about his paintings: they don't mean anything when I do them. They're just a mess. The meaning comes later. Some critics interpret this as Antonioni himself speaking through the character. In other words, in the process of creation, inspiration comes first, but only at the end is meaning and analysis even possible. If we are to accept this premise as true, we are to concede that in the act of construction itself, an artist's ultimate aim is to deliberately submerge himself in the creation of his work and procede from there, content to leave strict interpretation specifically for the critics and the audience alone.

Blow-Up is also a film about power, but to write it off as simply a character study of an alpha male character who dominates a procession of submissive females in a variety of different ways would be over-simplifing things considerably. As a damning indictment of the nature of fame and celebrity, it's plain to see that no one who dwells in the photographer's universe is cheerful or contented. Many aspire to be captured on film, parading themselves in front of him, begging for a break. In great contrast to this, those already in the business of modeling know far better. Weak, diseased, stunted, ill, pale---they are anything but happy and satisfied with themselves or their chosen careers. The photographer caustically and curtly dismisses them all as bloody bitches, revealing that even he himself is not immune to the negative effects of the sordid business.

What puts Hemmings' character in a position of power over almost everyone is that he has something many women desire, namely an ability to make models look aesthetically beautiful. As we have seen, these desires when fully actualized are nightmarish, not thrilling. Still, there is one prominent example where the photographer stands on equal footing with another character instead of having a decided advantage. This occurs when he meets the female owner of an antique shop on an errand of business. This time she has something he wants. After a frosty start, the two bond as the owner expresses her own deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, raising a rhetorical question for herself and the audience as to whether anyone is ever truly content with their lot in life. This kind of existential dilemma is commonplace in an Antonioni film, along with a cast of characters utterly paralyzed by boredom and ennui. Blow-Up's languorous pacing and the passive, unenthusiastic affect of the actors and actresses reinforces this overwhelming sense of crippling exhaustion.

Audiences sometimes think Blow-Up as somewhat of a challenge to digest, particularly since most commercial films instruct the audience what to feel, where to look, and how to think. In contrast, Antonioni's works substitute strict direction for individual choice. Though the viewer must accept the director's reality, almost everything else that passes before the lens is presented subjectively. Cinematic cues are infrequent and while the soundtrack emphasizes the emotional tone of each scene, music is used sparingly, quite different from most movies. I actually prefer it this way because the heavy-handed fashion of which much mainstream cinema, particularly American cinema, is structured reminds me of a parent lecturing a child in unnecessarily exacting detail, else the child miss the point altogether. Blow-Up certainly does make few concessions to the audience. For me, at least, multiple viewings were necessary to completely grasp the depth and breadth of its parade of images.

An intensely visual experience, the movie can at times hypnotize viewers with its skillful editing and equally inventive shot composition. The dialogue itself is minimal. There are no monologues nor much in the way of involved conversation. The players keep their discussions to a minimum and more often than not give the appearance of being pensive and otherwise preoccupied with their own private issues; this places the focus squarely on the visual display and on the source music, which, as referred to above, occasionally incorporates recorded music, but is frequently underscored by silence.


VG said...


Wow, this is a great piece of writing.

I remember being fascinated by "Blowup" when I first watched on the big screen, many years ago, but had more or less forgotten about it.

Now you've made me want to watch it again, soon!

Thank you!

Batocchio said...

Nice overview. "The Gaze" is definitely a key theme. It's been several years since I watched it. Critics have called the blow-up scene "pure cinema," and it really is. When I was studying in London, we visited the park where it was shot. You may enjoy reading the original short story it was based on. The plot's very different, but the themes are similar.

Here's a piece of trivia for you - in at least one scene, Antonioni didn't like the shade of green in the grass, so he had it painted. (I think The Passenger is much more handsomely shot overall, but they had better technology at that point. There's also a few scenes in The Passenger where the Gazer becomes the Gazed-Upon.)

If you haven't seen it yet, Copolla's "The Conversation" is a great film inspired by Blow-Up (we may want to skip Travolta and Blow-Out), and Hackman's character in Enemy of the State is made to look like his character in The Conversation...

Keep those film reviews comin'!

Liberality said...

"the act of construction itself, an artist's ultimate aim is to deliberately submerge himself in the creation of his work and proceed from there"

hey, I can dig that for sure. You really are a very good writer CK.