Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just watched...

...Antonioni's classic film "Blow Up."

I know, I know, how could I have been a film major and not have seen Antonioni’s first English-language film, “Blow Up?” I guess I was busy watching “Rashomon” and Fassbinder films, and writing essays about the development of film noir in American cinema.
No matter, because now we can all survey the landmarks of the history of cinema on DVD. “Blow Up” may not be a masterpiece, but it is important in film and in cultural history. Antonioni was working with ideas that were floating around in the counter-culture at the time, and his films generally express a dissatisfaction with a kind of staid, bourgeois life that emerged after World War II. His films identify themselves with young people of the time, young people yearning for some kind of meaning, young people attempting to break free of tradition and find a way for themselves. The “hippie” movement of the 60s was Antonioni’s paint box and he painted some extraordinary works.
There are detractors who claim that Antonioni was an unfocused, careless and/or confused filmmaker. I suppose that is one way of looking at him, but I feel in his films that he was trying to create a mood within a story, trying to create a rhythm and a texture, like Fellini and David Lynch. Antonioni’s films remind me of the late great Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut” which was a dream from start to finish… it resembles real life but is off just enough to give you pause. Are there non-sequiturs and gaps in logic in “Blow Up?” Absolutely. Are they jarring? Yes. There were several times where I had to scratch my head and wonder why something just happened, or why the main character would simply stand and stare at this particular moment when some kind of action was called for. But one cannot stop the plot to ask such questions—with some films one can, but with Antonioni, one must simply go along with the flow. The action exists within a dream-like framework, and one does not quibble with one’s dreams, one simply deals with the narrative presented. Sometimes the flow is quite slow. Like Fassbinder, he often shows action in real time: if it takes someone 30 seconds to walk down the street, then that is how long it takes in the scene. He is not in a hurry and often lets his camera linger on a tableau or an empty room after a scene is “done.”
One reads words like “alienation” when reading about Antonioni’s works, and it is true. When you look at "Zabriskie Point," a film that takes place in the desert of the American Southwest, everything is alienated; he uses the vast space and emptiness of the desert to manifest inner monologues of characters and cultural ideas. And he does a similar thing in “Blow Up”: somehow he manages to make crowded, swinging London in the 60s look empty and disconnected.The story involves Thomas, a petulant fashion photographer played by David Hemmings. If he is not inscrutably silent, he is barking at his models. During a fashion shoot, he loses his temper and storms out with his camera. He ends up at a local park, presumably to walk and clear his head. Once there, he witnesses a young woman (a lovely, classic, equine Vanessa Redgrave) cavorting with an older gentleman. The photojournalist in Thomas is intrigued and he surreptitiously snaps a roll of film of the couple. But the young woman follows him, desperately demanding the roll of film. Curious about her near hysteria over the film, he gives her a decoy roll and develops the photos only to discover some odd things. After blowing the photos up (hence the name of the film), he realizes he may have documented a murder. Or not.

The framework of alienation that Antonioni works with is here taken to an extreme. Thomas may be alienated from reality itself. The film is bookended with a mime troupe, whose first appearance is a riotous explosion. But their final appearance, standing stock still, and nearly menacing, around the fence of a tennis court while an imaginary mimed game is happening, may signal a different state of mind for Thomas.
Recommend? Yes, certainly, but with the usual caveats: if you are someone who does not like foreign films, or someone who loved “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” move along, there is nothing for you to see here.

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