Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Target #214: Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)

TSPDT placing: #206
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by: Julio Cortázar (short story), Michelangelo Antonioni (story), Michelangelo Antonioni (screenplay), Tonino Guerra (screenplay), Edward Bond (English dialogue)
Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, Peter Bowles, Veruschka

WARNING: Major plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

I once heard Blowup (1966) described as the only film whose entire meaning changes completely if the final ten seconds are removed. I was understandably rather skeptical about this assertion, but no longer. I was watching the film, had already made my conclusions about what Michelangelo Antonioni was trying to say on the nature of reality…and then came the final ten seconds. Everything I thought I'd learned for the film suddenly came crashing down. How can the simple sounds of a tennis match have triggered such an extraordinary shift in my perception of the film? The story concerns a bored, superficial professional photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), who unknowingly takes peaceful park photographs that apparently reveal, under extremely close inspection, a murder in the happening. The film bares stylistic similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), albeit with a more obscure narrative, and is also reminiscent of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). Also notable is the film's influence on later pictures, particularly Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's homage, Blow Out (1981).

By the mid-1960s, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni had already achieved great success with films such as L'avventura (1960) and L'eclisse (1962). When producer Carlos Ponti offered him a three-picture contract with MGM, to direct English-language films with complete artistic freedom, he saw an opportunity to expand his success into the international market, and Blowup was the first of the films released under this contract {it was followed by Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975)}. But Antonioni was not to compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of commercial success; his film is a beguiling meditation on the nature of reality, perception and illusion. It's a murder mystery stripped of its procedure, resolution, and, indeed, stripped of the murder itself… was there even a murder? Despite these challenging themes, the film proved a tidy box-office success, perhaps in no small part due to its audacious depiction of sexuality, and the bizarre fashion styles of the swingin' 1960s are forever encapsulated through the director's lens.

Returning to what I discussed earlier, how could my interpretation of the film's themes alter so radically over a period of seconds? Previously, the element of Blowup that struck me most compellingly was how the camera was able to capture moments of reality that Thomas' senses were incapable of perceiving - the armed gunman in the bushes, the body in the grass. My understanding was that the photograph represents an objective perspective of the world. Whereas the senses can be distracted and misdirected, the photograph captures what is the truth. Thomas never saw the murder, and never saw any traces of its taking place (barring his later "discovery" of the body itself), but the camera saw everything. Then, of course, came the ending, and I was suddenly struck by the realisation that I'd been interpreting everything in completely the wrong way. The photograph isn't objective at all - it merely reflects the subjectivity of the person viewing it. Thomas saw the gunman and the dead body in the photograph precisely because he wanted to see them there!

In these moments, a Hitchcockian murder plot instantly transformed into something much more cerebral, baffling and intriguing. The opening thirty minutes, in which seemingly nothing of any relevance takes place, is crucial in the development of Thomas' character, and suggests a possible reason for his elaborate murder fabrication (if, of course, it was merely a fabrication). As he goes through the motions of his day, treating fashion models with complete and utter disdain punctuated by sporadic moments of almost sexually-charged exaltation, Thomas quickly loses interest in whatever task is at hand. He's bored, and craves for any incident that might challenge his craft… a nice murder mystery, for example. The 1960s London setting provides a perfect social context for the film's events - society is depraved, superficial and obsessed with youth and appearance; given that many of the film's characters also utilise mind-altering narcotics, it's hardly surprising that the senses are not to be trusted in interpreting reality.

Currently my #1 film of 1966:
1) Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni)
2) La Battaglia di Algeri {The Battle of Algiers} (Gillo Pontecorvo)
3) Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo {The Good, the Bad and the Ugly} (Sergio Leone)
4) The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)
5) Persona (Ingmar Bergman)

39th Academy Awards, 1967:
* Best Director - Michelangelo Antonioni (nomination)
* Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond (nomination)

BAFTA Awards, 1968:
* Best British Art Direction (Colour) - Assheton Gorton (nomination)
* Best British Cinematography (Colour) - Carlo Di Palma (nomination)
* Best British Film - Michelangelo Antonioni (nomination)

Cannes Film Festival, 1967:
* Palm d'Or - Michelangelo Antonioni (win)

British Film Institute Top 100 British Films, 1999:
* #60 placing

What others have said:

"Watching "Blowup" once again, I took a few minutes to acclimate myself to the loopy psychedelic colors and the tendency of the hero to use words like "fab" ("Austin Powers" brilliantly lampoons the era). Then I found the spell of the movie settling around me. Antonioni uses the materials of a suspense thriller without the payoff. He places them within a London of heartless fashion photography, groupies, bored rock audiences, languid pot parties, and a hero whose dead soul is roused briefly by a challenge to his craftsmanship."
Roger Ebert November 8, 1998.

"When the film came out, Michelangelo Antonioni's mixture of suspense with vagueness and confusion seemed to have a numbing fascination for some people which they associated with art and intellectuality. He conducts a leisurely tour of "swinging" London, lingering over the flashiest routes and dawdling over a pot party and a mini-orgy, while ponderously suggesting that the mod scene represents a condition of spiritual malaise in which people live only for the sensations of the moment. Yet despite Antonioni's negativism, the world he presents looks harmless, and sex without "connecting" doesn't really seem so bad. The best part of the movie is an ingeniously edited sequence in which the fashion-photographer hero (David Hemmings) blows up a series of photographs and discovers that he has inadvertently photographed a murder. "
Pauline Kael

"Michelangelo Antonioni's sexy art-house hit of 1966, which played a substantial role in putting "swinging London" on the map, follows a day in the life of a young fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who discovers, after blowing up his photos of a couple glimpsed in a park, that he may have inadvertently uncovered a murder. Part erotic thriller..., part exotic travelogue..., this is so ravishing to look at (the colors all seem newly minted) and pleasurable to follow (the enigmas are usually more teasing than worrying) that you're likely to excuse the metaphysical pretensions--which become prevalent only at the very end--and go with the 60s flow, just as the original audiences did."
Jonathan Rosenbaum

1 comment:

tosser/ressot said...

I wouldn't quite say that the meaning changes in the final moment - rather it just develops a bit more. You see, for me at least, it's a movie all about shifting realities - Jack (I forgot the main character's name. I'm calling him Jack.) goes through all sorts of different realities (I use the term vaguely, so bear with me): from the rock concert to examining the photos, and so on. For example, at the concert, he's so drawn into the reality of the concert that he goes crazy to grab the smashed guitar. There were plenty more examples throughout the film, but I can't remember them all.

But the point is that in the final moment - I think Antonioni was acknowledging Blowup as a film and not a reality by drawing Jack out of our reality by erasing him from the screen. And even in the moments that you mention where we hear the sounds of the tennis match, that's just Jack being drawn into the reality of the tennis match.

I love this movie - one of my all time favorites.