Blowup September 17, 2020
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
lowup (1966) is only sort of a thriller — just like it’s only sort of an ethnography of the “Swinging London” milieu of the 1960s, just like it’s only sort of a film about the pains of alienation, just like it’s only sort of a lampooning of cinema itself. It doesn’t commit to too much; doesn't matter how lofty the ideas to which it doesn't commit are. Its co-writer and director, Michelangelo Antonioni, has made a film that
teems with provocations. But because each provocation comes with little conviction — an idea will be presented but then never really explored — our confusion can be disruptive. Is viewer confusion meant to be grouped in with Blowup’s other aesthetic devices? Kind of like Alain Resnais’ famously esoteric Last Year at Marienbad (1961), it’s a movie that almost immediately teases interpretation-loving filmgoers, who have long responded to those teases to a sometimes-overwrought degree. Over the decades the many questions presented in Blowup have instilled in lots of viewers an overwhelming hunger to unlock its “meaning,” because it is so often unreadable. This, in turn, is often mistaken as an indication of the film’s supposed genius or quality. If you have to really work toward understanding something, it must be better.
Blowup is frequently put on a pedestal as Antonioni’s magnum opus. It isn't that much of an anomaly when looking at it and then recalling the movies he made before it; it's more a culmination of his body of work. His other '60s efforts are, like Blowup, hip-looking dramas that revolve around ennui-stricken, lonely, beautiful, young characters. These characters have been in the grips of restlessness for so long that they've begun to reason that they don't matter much (which tortures them) and that everything they do doesn't matter much either (which tortures them more). In these films, these characters typically get wrapped up in something they only half-heartedly believe will rid them of their malaise. It’s also typical to find them in an unhappier state by the end of the film than when we first met them.
In La Notte (1961), a cool writer played by Marcello Mastroianni is unhappily married to Jeanne Moreau. We can tell this union is doomed; to make matters worse, the couple is reminded of its mortality when a close friend dies. The Mastroianni character later attempts to initiate an affair with Monica Vitti. But how much can that solve? The end of the movie depressingly romanticizes the "old days" — supposedly happier — with the future looking bleak. In L'Eclisse
(1962), working-class people played by Vitti and Alain Delon (who from the jump seem only to have a mutual attraction to the other person to cling onto) try out a romance. But their preoccupation with the fundamental emptiness of the gesture undermines a real start. And in Red Desert (1964), a housewife played by (look who it is) Vitti is so overcome with crippling loneliness that she cannot connect with anyone — not her child, her spouse, the classically handsome associate of her husband she tries to have an affair with (Richard Harris).
These movies more or less juxtapose these characters’ respective neuroses with doomed relationships. Blowup also features a neurotic and depressed character acutely aware of the futility of his and everyone's existence. But he's not using a romantic relationship as a potential healing ointment for his woes. In the movie, his lassitude is more so pitted against his environment, his profession, and the pleasures that typically come with both. (Antonioni has said before that this is a movie not about a man’s relationship with man but with his reality.) I like all these movies, but I can't deny noticing that they seem a little pleased with themselves and that I find them a little boring. There's an unshakable sense that Antonioni is enamored of his pessimism; he's skilled at immersing us in the plateuish worlds of characters I frankly hope I do not someday resemble, which I suppose explains the tedium. (Psychologically and emotionally, that is; I wouldn’t mind suddenly physically resembling Mastroianni or Delon if the opportunity somehow arose.)
n Blowup, the man of the hour is Thomas (David Hemmings), a London-based fashion photographer of about 25. (Plenty viewers have noted that this skinny, shaggy-haired shutterbug is a thinly veiled David Bailey mimic.) The movie covers 24 hours in his life. Thomas starts the day with a tango-ish shoot he’s late for with the fashionably rawboned supermodel Veruschka, playing herself; he subsequently has another photoshoot
where he treats the goofily done up and costumed models like cattle. (Maybe worse.) He briefly attends to the relationship he has with a married and little-shown neighbor (Sarah Miles); he has a little romp in the afternoon with a couple of fledgling models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) perhaps too blurry consent-wise to be considered that casual a midday tryst. He goes to a Yardbirds concert; he takes unsolicited photos of a couple (Vanessa Redgrave and Ronan O’Casey) at a park. Most of this day is unremarkable. The film wants to drive in that even though Thomas is preternaturally talented and is
charmed with this dream job and this dream job’s perks (he’s in-demand), the day-to-day is no less enveloped in humdrum routine than someone living and working in less-ideal circumstances.
Would Thomas have thought, as he entered the park on a whim, that the visit might throw a wrench in the said routine? The statuesque woman in the couple, whom we’re later told is named Jane, is understandably bothered when she notices Thomas taking photos of her and her lover. She accosts him at the exit’s stairway, demanding he hand over the photos right then. There's an adamance in her voice and demeanor — she’s keyed-up like a bomb-disposal technician being interrupted as they're trying to stop an explosion. Suggested is an element of danger. Are the photos going to reveal something damning? Jane agrees to stop by Thomas’ place later to grab the reel. They flirt a little once she arrives. (But that flirting is so anxious and strange it’s hard to even call it that — it’s like a game of seduction where the wanted outcomes from both parties are so far apart they might as well be in different rooms with different people.) Jane doesn't ultimately get what she wants, which is the photos — Thomas gives her the wrong reel on purpose. Thomas gets only part of what he wants — he'll keep the pictures but get no time in the hay.
Soon he’ll find out why Jane was acting so frenzied. In the movie's best scene, he blows up (haha), and keeps blowing up until the picture is clear, the background of one of his paparazzi-aping shots. It looks to him like he has caught someone being shot to death on camera. No way it could be graininess playing tricks, either. When I said earlier that Blowup is loaded with provocations that offer lots of questions but few answers, I wasn't speaking from the heart, like merely I personally was confused and dissatisfied: We will not find out if Thomas really captured someone being murdered; we will not definitively find out why Jane was acting so worried about the photos.
We’re meant, it seems, to be haunted by the inconclusiveness. We’re also meant, it seems, to feel a little silly for getting caught up in wanting to know. At the end of the film, Thomas watches a couple of mimes play a game of tennis with, of course, no tangible rackets or ball at the same park where he ostensibly captured a murder. He's enraptured, then is thrown for a loop when the players pretend the ball has flown over the fence and encourage Thomas to toss it back over for them. Pretty funny; pretty heavy-handed. I guess Thomas is supposed to be our stand-in — the fool who got caught up in a convincing game of make-believe. After the closing credits roll, he will probably go back to the life he was living before, the murder mystery an exciting thing that happened that will nonetheless be forgotten about — a cheap thrill, like it were fiction.
n 1999, the man who played Vanessa Redgrave’s lover in Blowup wrote a letter to Roger Ebert, who’d recently written a retrospective rave of the movie. He acknowledged that while he too thought Blowup was a good movie, it didn’t sit right with him having this critic laud the movie’s unforgettable sense of mystery as being some kind of careful construction. The actor contended in the letter that when filming started, the screenplay
had been much richer with conventionality (the murder mystery, for one thing, being more directly addressed), but, because the movie went way over budget, Antonioni had to sculpt it down to the arty question mark sent to theaters with little time to spare.
So Blowup's famed bafflement was not to be mistaken for an assiduously made choice — more a last-minute improvisation that wound up sticking and being overpraised. Funny, because, watching the movie now, I love the various (and apparently accidental) enigmas much more than I do Antonioni's apparently more resolute choices. The resolute choice I can’t stand the most: his way of portraying the materialism and hedonism rampant in the Swinging-London milieu as vacuous, shiny distractions from existence’s ultimate worthlessness. Maybe it’s true, but is wallowing preferable?
Blowup’s supposedly incidental ambivalence helps make it a genuinely exciting challenge to one’s comfort in the basic arcs of various movie platitudes and tropes. Familiar notes, when played right, can be almost relaxing. But Antonioni plays them wrong and clamorously — and we like the shock. The movie never exactly goes where we think it will. But I find the open (unless I’m mistaken) contempt for Thomas’ world and its short-term pleasures more annoying, get-off-my-lawnish, than illuminating. Of course everything we do is pointless in the grand scheme of things, but I’d rather my pointless existence be spiced up when it can be by innocuous delights. Sometimes it’s like Antonioni thinks the peripheral characters in his movies have to be reminded of their inevitable doom because they’re otherwise going to forget, or because they’re too dull to understand it themselves. He must teach them.
Antonioni is the kind of filmmaker who can make a movie you really like but who still suffers from an ailment comedian Marc Maron concisely coined in a Sept. 2 Instagram Live session. The condition, which Maron off-handedly dubbed "tedious genius syndrome," involves the tedious genius in question being inarguably insightful and capable of making products to which we can connect but whose self-importance is easily detected and can be a little off-putting at its strongest. Is Blowup an enigmatic masterpiece? Or is it a stylish plaything whose inscrutability has for so long been deemed more significant than it probably is? B+