Back To School: Michelangelo Antonioni // ‘Blow-Up’

And sometimes, you just get it completely wrong. (Yes, even me.)

I knew a little bit about Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up before watching it. I knew it was made in 1966. I knew the plot. I knew it inspired a Brian De Palma remake (Blow Out) starring John Travolta. But when I turned it on, I had two major revelations that proved I actually didn’t know much about the movie at all.

First: this movie is in color?

Second: this movie is in English?

Yes, as it turns out, Blow-Up is Antonioni’s first English-language film. And so instead of a black-and-white film in Italian, I got a color film set in London, which completely threw any preconceived notions I had of this movie.

Blow-Up was made in 1966, and you can tell. If I had to choose just one film to represent 1960’s cinema, I might pick this. I don’t mean to discredit the entire decade, because plenty of good films, by Hitchcock and Godard and Fellini and others, were made then. It was a time of experimentation and self-indulgence, with lots of narrative meandering. It was well before the era of the blockbuster, of course, and plenty of interesting things were happening in the world. A period of transition, both globally and cinematically, between the more conservative and classical era of moviemaking and the masterworks of the 70’s.

Blow-Up is intriguing as a time capsule of the mod 60’s in London, the kind of stuff Austin Powers pokes fun at. But for me, at least, it didn’t hold up as a piece of entertainment. As fun as I’m sure the swinging 60’s were, they aren’t quite as much fun to watch.

Blow-Up follows the photographer Thomas as he takes pictures. Lots of pictures. Of beautiful women, of life about town. Most of the leisurely first hour is Thomas taking pictures. Then he happens upon two supposed lovers frolicking in the park, snaps some photos, and encounters the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) in the duo, who demands to be given the film. Thomas promises to give her the photos later, apparently not picking up on her blatantly guilty, suspicious behavior (including biting him in an attempt to steal his camera).

They do meet later, and she gets topless, of course. (It’s the 60’s!) There she behaves even more suspiciously, again trying to steal Thomas’ camera, and still he doesn’t find this strange. It is only later, once he develops the film, that he notices something odd in the photos — a dead body? Did the mysterious woman commit a murder? The photos are inconclusive, so Thomas decides to roll around on the floor with two naked women for awhile (as one does, in the 60’s, upon witnessing a felony). That night, he goes to the park himself, finds the man’s body — then leaves to go to a party, of course, without alerting the police or anything. When he returns later, the body is gone, so Thomas decides to play tennis with some mimes. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Blow-Up is obviously more concerned with style and what it’s trying to say than the actual mechanics of the plot. There’s an inherent irony in the fact that Thomas stumbled onto a murder scene and didn’t know it, and only ever realized it through looking at photos. So art tells truth better than real-life experience. That’s interesting, but the details of the murder are so sketchy and unconvincing. Why was it done in a public park? Would the body really be undiscovered for so long? If they just left it there initially, why go back and remove it later? Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Thomas could just be imagining it all — except not really, because there is a body. I guess we aren’t meant to think about the credibility of the actual murder too hard, but too bad, ’cause I did.

While watching Blow-Up, I was constantly reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, which makes sense, because the latter was inspired by the former. But that movie did a much better job of creating intrigue, blurring the line between fact and fiction, suggesting the protagonist’s insanity, and presenting a plausible murder scenario. Plus, it was a genuine thriller. Blow-Up isn’t trying to be a thriller, even if the plot description all but begs to be one. But the protagonist is boring, the murder is sketchy, and what happens after isn’t all that interesting. I can appreciate certain aspects of Blow-Up, particularly the way it inspired later filmmakers, but I can’t say I really enjoyed itl. It’s cool and detached and very, very 60’s, but maybe you had to be there.

I’ll take the 70’s, thanks.

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