Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-MIchelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up"
When your first name is Michelangelo, you certainly have a lot to live up to. Michelangelo Antonioni spent his 94 years doing that in the landscape of cinema, and is certainly one of the all-time giants in the directorial world. That doesn’t mean that he was universally adored, however. His spare, quiet style, and characters who most often seem detached and at odds with the world, was not for everyone.
The way his work was received swung wildly from genius to pretentious, and his three English language films reflect that. His first was 1966’s “Blow Up”, which is the subject of today’s review. It was a huge international hit, and generally was critically praised, but not universally. His final English language film, 1975’s “The Passenger” with Jack Nicholson was considered a masterpiece, but bombed at the box office.
The one in between is 1970’s “Zabriskie Point” is a head trip very much of its time, and is probably best known for the music by Pink Floyd (songs specifically for the film), The Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones. The reaction to it was about as split as you can imagine. Some considered it a grand statement of the times, some found it ultra-pretentious hogwash. I once had a book titled “The Hundred Worst Films of All Time”, that I wish I could find again, it was hilarious. “Zabriskie Point” is likely the most “important” film in it, and it gets torched. I’m not sure it was THAT bad, but I come close to agreeing.
As an aside, if anyone has seen that book anywhere, it was published in the mid-to-late seventies, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It brings you into a hysterical world of horrendous films like “Santa Claus Versus the Martians” or “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules”. And my world would never have complete if I hadn’t been inspired by the book to seek out the 1938 all-midget western “The Terror of Tiny Town”. Played straight, but fall down funny and extremely weird.
Back to the real world. For my last birthday, my wife bought me a stack of DVD’s of important films of the past, and we are getting to them every now and then. I have seen them all before, but most not in a long while. “Blow Up” falls into that category.
Set in “Swinging London”, it is the story of a fashion photographer who stumbles into a murder case while out shooting photographs for pleasure. Many film historians consider it one of the seminal films of the 1960’s and it is easy to see why. It very much reflects at least one very creative person’s view of the time, without being wildly dated. It was the highest-grossing art film to date, was picked as the best film by the National Society of Film Critics, and got Oscar nominations for screenplay and direction.
Antonioni’s film cruises (slowly walks is more like it) through a world of blank-faced models, stoner café’s and parties, and stark outside landscapes. It is incredibly quiet, which adds to the creepy tension in the proper settings. The silence of the outdoor scenes is often broken only by the slight sound of footfalls, or maybe a bird chirp or three.
When there is music, it is generally in clubs, and you can have a little fun as Jimmy Page pops up in The Yardbirds, and, hey, that’s Jeff Beck. But even some fine music is played out before audiences that are stoned and bored.
The lead character is Thomas, a famous fashion photographer with a Beatles haircut, a Rolls Royce, and cool to burn. He is constantly pursued by models who want score fashion shoots and are willing to do anything to get that accomplished. Thomas is flat out disdainful of the “birds” who want his favor. Played by David Hemmings in a role that made him internet-style famous at the time, Hemmings is brilliant, and he has to be, because he is on screen almost all the time.
The whodunit aspect of the film really isn’t the point, but it is fascinating. Thomas likes to get away from his bread and butter in the studio, by wondering around to flophouses and through parks, to take pictures to contrast his fashion work in the art books he publishes. On one of his park excursions he spots a couple alone at quite a distance. They could be flirting or fighting. He starts snapping pictures, as the viewpoint flashes back and forth between the subjects and Thomas.
Soon the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) chases him down, demanding the film. She pursues him to his studio, unsuccessfully tries to seduce him, and he sends her away with the wrong roll of film. In the ensuing centerpiece scene of the movie, he methodically step-by-step enlarges one of the images until he can see that there is a body lying under a tree. Thomas is completely engaged in the process, showing a passion for the task he never exhibits in any other aspect of his life.
Thomas goes to the park, and finds the body. But the case starts to unravel as the body and the photographs all disappear. As I said, just as “the process” for Thomas was more important than the eventual photographs, so are the details of the murder case mainly a vehicle for the film’s inspection of the disaffection of the characters.
The scenes are works of art in themselves, but certainly ones you have to let soak in, because that is demanded. Small activities are chronicled in lush detail, every color and sound has been thought out intensely. One example is the splash of red that inhabits virtually every scene somewhere.
The Mod London scene is certainly ripe for spoof, Austin Powers style, but this film avoids cliché at every turn. The cinematography is too good, Hemmings never has a false note, even as he uses the groovy lingo of the day, and even the use of a mime troupe miraculously works for me. They are doing something called “rag” at the time in England, a flash mob raising money for charity, and they pop up at unique moments in the film, including a bizarrely intriguing closing scene.
This is indeed an art film, but I believe that even those who normally might not go in for these things can appreciate the incredible quality of the work. It is stunningly quiet for many stretches, but never seems to drag.
I was very much looking forward to re-visiting this movie, and it exceeded my expectations, which were quite high. Visually interesting, mentally challenging, and curiosity raising, all in one cinematic stew.
Clink Scale 8.4